GOP Georgia lawmakers file bill to protect campus speakers

Several top Republican state lawmakers have proposed a bill that could impose penalties as severe as expulsion for student protesters who repeatedly stop people from speaking on Georgia’s public college campuses.

They join counterparts in about a dozen states in pushing legislation modeled after a conservative organization’s proposal.

Senate Bill 339, filed last week, is designed to ensure constitutional protections to speakers after several controversial speakers nationwide — mostly conservative — were either turned away by college administrators or shouted down by students.

“We think that the First Amendment is very important and something that should be protected on our campuses,” said Sen. William Ligon, R-Brunswick, the bill’s lead sponsor.

Others are concerned that those efforts to protect the rights of speakers could result in unfair penalties to some protesting those speakers.

The bill includes a provision that awards court damages of at least $1,000 to people or groups whose speech rights were violated by a protester. Students who’ve been found responsible twice for interrupting speeches by others could be suspended for one year or expelled.

Some wonder what criteria would be used to determine if the disruption requires disciplinary action. Ligon said college administrators will use common sense to decide.

“We think it’s too rigid,” Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), headquartered in Philadelphia, said of that part of the bill.

College administrators in some parts of Georgia and nationwide have had difficulty balancing the rights of speakers against concerns about violence. A large group of University of Florida students jeered and protested white nationalist Richard Spencer when he came to campus in October. Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a state of emergency in the area near the campus before Spencer's visit.

In Georgia, FIRE has been critical of campus speech guidelines at the University of North Georgia. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions filed a "statement of interest" last year in support of a student who sued Georgia Gwinnett College, accusing the college of restricting where he could speak on campus. Overall, Cohn said he sees pros and cons about the bill and plans to contact Georgia lawmakers about it.

University System of Georgia spokesman Charles Sutlive said he couldn’t comment on pending legislation, but noted the state’s Board of Regents adopted systemwide campus speech guidelines last year. USG policy requires all of its colleges and universities, which include the University of Georgia, Georgia State and Georgia Tech, to provide high-traffic, accessible areas for speakers. The rules do not mention penalties for students who disrupt a speaker.

“We adopted a systemwide policy to ensure that all students, faculty and staff are able to express and discuss freely their views per their First Amendment rights,” Sutlive said in a statement.

Ligon believes the senate bill offers more structured protection for speakers.

Last year, the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute produced a “Campus Free Speech Act” that it says has been reproduced as pending legislation in some fashion in about a dozen states. The Georgia Senate bill has nearly identical language.

Ligon said he spoke with some involved in crafting the institute’s proposed act before filing the bill.

The bill has guidelines that allow colleges and universities to reject a student or group’s proposal to speak on campus if administrators worry the speech could be defamatory, cause harassment or incite violence.

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