Florida joins push to outlaw 'free speech zones' on campus

The bill, filed in mid-December by two Republican lawmakers, would require schools to allow anyone to engage in expressive activities on any outdoor areas of campus, and would also impose penalties for conduct that interferes with free speech.

Florida is set to become the 21st state to consider legislation intended to guarantee free speech on public university campuses when its legislature convenes later this month.

State lawmakers in Florida are joining the effort to strengthen guarantees of free speech on public university campuses, making it the 21st state to consider such legislation.

The “Campus Free Expression Act,” filed in mid-December by State Senator Dennis Baxley and State Representative Bob Rommel, would restrict federally funded institutions of higher education from designating any area of campus as a “free speech zone.”

If passed, the bill would prohibit colleges and universities from imposing blanket restrictions on speech in outdoor areas of campus, defining those areas as “traditional public forums” open to anybody wishing to use them for free expression, as long as “the person’s conduct is lawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of  the public institution of higher education.”

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Additionally, the proposed legislation attempts to curb the so-called “heckler's veto” by barring protesters from materially disrupting scheduled events, imposing a fine of up to $100,000 for a single violation, plus reasonable court costs and attorney fees.

Rommel told The Tampa Bay Times that the bill was not written in response to the Richard Spencer event at the University of Florida in October, saying it was based on model legislation crafted by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education long before the Spencer controversy.

“Now we’re cordoning people off into little squares, into free speech zones,” Baxley added. "It is a growing concern that we’re dissolving into a very narrow view of the world that has to be politically correct to a certain standard, and if you have anything to say that’s not in that little square, then the new tactic is not to debate you, but to silence you.”

[RELATED: Heritage promotes legislation to protect free speech on campus]

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow for the Heritage Foundation, told Campus Reform that he thinks the proposed legislation will help improve the state of free speech on campus.

“Too many administrators and too many students today seem to have the same view towards speech that the Soviet Union had towards dissenters from their communist ideology—any speech that differs from whatever the prevailing orthodoxy and politically correct ideology is on campus must be banned,” Spakovsky stated. “They have no appreciation for the rights protected under the First Amendment.”

The issue is particularly important on college campuses, he added, noting that students who are accustomed to speech restrictions in school might “impose laws and rules that violate First Amendment freedoms” in other areas of society after they graduate.

“Restricting such speech to only a limited space is the very antithesis of what universities are supposed to do. It is a betrayal of their fundamental purpose,” he argued. “Kids today grow up in K-12 schools and then colleges with severe, restrictive speech codes in place. They are being taught that it is wrong to express any views that may be controversial or don’t agree with the majority.”

The legislation will be considered when Florida’s 2018 legislative session begins on January 9.

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