For The Record

Campus access bill stirs debate over rights of controversial speakers

By: - February 20, 2020 6:50 am

A bill to define the bounds of unpopular speech at Georgia colleges got a hearing in a senate committee Wednesday. Anti-abortion activists and student protesters faced off at the University of Georgia in 2019. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

A Brunswick GOP lawmaker is pushing legislation intended to ensure all campus common areas are open to speakers, even if that speech is unpopular or controversial.

Sen. William Ligon said Georgia needs to ensure First Amendment free speech rights are honored on public college campuses.

 “What we’ve seen over a period of time is that suits have to be filed from time to time to protect those rights,” Ligon said of his Senate Bill 318. “This is an effort to avoid that.”

At a state Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday, Ligon sat with Matt Sharp of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based conservative Christian nonprofit that litigates and defends speech rights on campus. Sharp’s group was the plaintiff in several of the cases Ligon referenced.

Controversial speakers drew protests at some Georgia campuses in recent years. Anti-abortion groups have been met with resistance at several Georgia colleges. At the University of Georgia last year, protesters from student organizations confronted members of Created Equal who displayed graphic images of abortion.  

As many as 16 states passed all or part of the same language that’s in Ligon’s bill, Sharp said.

And it doesn’t open the door to harassment or true threats, Sharp said. 

Georgia’s public colleges could not set aside parts of their campuses as “free speech zones,” under the bill. Instead, it would affirm that all unrestricted outdoor spaces at schools are open as public forums to the campus community — students, faculty, staff and invited guests.

According to the University System of Georgia, campus unrestricted outdoor spaces are already open to public speakers. It’s Board of Regents policy, said Senior Legal Counsel Brooke Bowen. And federal law already protects free speech. 

The university system supports the intent of the bill, Bowen said, because it would formalize university rules and embed federal rules into state law. 

But she and others told lawmakers some language in the bill is overly broad or imprecise in the current draft. She defended the need for universities to retain some control within campus boundaries.

Schools should be able to prioritize their spaces for the use of the campus community as they are able to do now, Bowen said. That’s one reason they ask outside speakers to provide notice. And they also want to know if anyone is coming who might attract counter-protesters so the school can add security. 

“We do not restrict any outside individual from coming,” Bowen said. “We actually often face a lot of backlash from all sides, about certain particular controversial views that may come to our campuses.”

The committee adjourned Wednesday evening without a vote. 

 

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Maggie Lee
Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee is a freelance reporter who's been covering Georgia and metro Atlanta government and politics since 2008. Her written work and data journalism has appeared in online and print outlets including The (Macon) Telegraph, Creative Loafing and SaportaReport.com.

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