By Jonathan Butcher
Over the last 12 months, students at public universities in Georgia have exposed outrageous censorship policies on campus. Yesterday, state lawmakers acted to protect free speech and added another victory for free expression in 2018.
Gov. Nathan Deal signed a proposal sponsored by Sen. William Ligon meant to “assure the freedom of speech or of the press is protected for all persons” on public college campuses. Similar to the ideas enacted by Arizona and North Carolina lawmakers, along with the Wisconsin state university governing board, Georgia colleges must create a range of disciplinary measures for anyone on campus that violates the ability of others to express themselves.
Schools must also produce an annual report that reviews the “barriers to…free expression” on campus, administrative responses to free speech violations, and whether schools interfered with faculty and students’ efforts to take positions on controversial issues. This latter provision is critical to protecting free speech because everyone on campus should be allowed to express opinions without fear of institutional reprisal for those beliefs.
Earlier this year, leaders of Georgia state colleges and universities said these provisions were unnecessary. Georgia State University President Mark Becker said the ideas were “unneeded,” and University of Georgia President Jere Morehead said there would be “unintended consequences.”
Yet recent examples demonstrate that all is not well with free speech on Georgia campuses. Last fall, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ office filed a statement of interest in a federal suit against Georgia Gwinnett College. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is defending a student who wanted to speak on religious issues outside of two so-called Free Speech Zones. These zones comprise 0.0015 percent of Gwinnett’s campus, and students must get permission to use the zones for expressive activity.
According to the announcement, “The Justice Department argues the college’s speech policies were not content-neutral, established an impermissible heckler’s veto, and were not narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling government interest.”
In February, ADF filed suit against Kennesaw State University, again for relegating free speech to another zone. KSU’s zone comprises 0.08 percent of campus. ADF reports that KSU officials told a student group they could only use a zone if the group removed parts of the group’s materials that contained a pro-life message.
The Georgia proposal takes steps to protect speech on campus, though more should be done in the future to abolish these zones. Free speech zones are at the center of the lawsuits against KSU and Gwinnett, making the zones’ removal a logical next step for state lawmakers.
By abolishing the zones, Georgia legislators would be on the leading edge of a national trend. Inside Higher Ed has reported that these “zones are probably going to die” on campuses around the country. Arizona abolished free speech zones on public college campuses in 2016, and lawmakers in Colorado, Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri, and Utah have made similar efforts.
Georgia lawmakers should also be more specific about the due process protections for individuals accused of violating the free speech rights of others. The new proposal quickly mentions due process protections in tandem with a range of disciplinary sanctions for those that try to silence others, but more specific provisions should be included. Those accused of blocking free expression should be notified of the hearings on charges against them and be allowed to find representation if necessary.
Still, Georgia’s proposal includes important—and badly needed—free speech protections. Arizona lawmakers have acted twice in the last three years to make sure public colleges protect free expression, and Georgia lawmakers should prepare to revisit the issue. But administrators claiming that the state of free speech on their campuses is healthy should be on notice: Students—and lawmakers—aren’t fooled anymore.
Jonathan Butcher is a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute.