Florida Bill Abolishing Free Speech Zones on Campus Fails

Protesters hold signs during a free speech rally
Protesters hold signs during a free speech rally / Getty Images
February 26, 2018

A bill abolishing "free speech zones" on campus failed in the Florida Senate Judiciary Committee last week.

The Campus Free Expression Act (SB 1234) was temporarily postponed by a vote of 6-4 on Tuesday, in the face of bipartisan backlash claiming the bill could chill counter-protests on campus and restrict students' First Amendment rights.

So-called "speech zones," or limited areas to which administrators restrict public expression, remain active on one in nine campuses, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, despite numerous lawsuits that have demonstrated the policy's unconstitutionality.

Baxley's opponents focused on his bill's provision permitting those whose "expressive rights" were violated to sue universities for up to $100,000 in damages, with a minimum $500 fine on those who "materially disrupt" reserved campus activities. Criticism, including from the American Civil Liberties Union, said such allowances could devastate campus expression.

In response, Baxley offered an amendment to replace the specific sanctions with a general allowance for victims to seek "declaratory and injunctive relief, reasonable court costs and attorneys' fees," and tightened the definition of disruptive behavior to "conduct that intentionally and significantly hinders another person's or group's express rights."

Still, left-wing activists with the Florida Student Power Network and Dream Defenders spoke out against SB 1234 as endangering their work and imposing steep financial burdens on those who act in response to hate speech.

A similar bill is still under consideration by the Florida House of Representatives.

Demetrius Minor, coalitions director for Generation Opportunity, said his group is "disappointed" in the Senate Judiciary Committee vote.

"College is a place where young people learn to express themselves and challenge ideas that go against their beliefs, but that dialogue will never occur if free speech is forced into the remote and empty corners of our campuses," said Minor, whose group has been leading grassroots youth advocacy in favor of campus free speech bills being considered in state legislatures.

Legislation demanding public universities protect the First Amendment rights of their students, by rewriting school policy and instituting harsher penalties on violators, have recently come under review in Arizona, Georgia, and South Dakota. Concerns similar to those raised in Florida have been brought up by state Democrats and university administrators, with University of Georgia President Jere Morehead testifying earlier this month against the bill as an "overbroad application of the First Amendment."

Published under: First Amendment