State policymakers discuss campus freedom of speech
In an 8-4 vote along party lines, the House Education Committee on Thursday approved a bill limiting the ability of universities to set time, place and manner restrictions on First Amendment speech and assembly.
The bill, proposed by Sen. Rick Ward, R-Port Allen, requires universities to develop written policies regarding free expression on campus and make annual reports to the Legislature.
With Chairwoman Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, casting the tie-breaking vote, the committee also rejected a set of amendments brought on behalf of LSU that aimed to balance free speech with the need to ensure campus safety.
Ward’s bill had already cleared the Senate in a 33-0 vote and now heads to the full House.
The bill comes at a time when Republicans nationwide have expressed outrage that public schools like the University of California at Berkeley have refused to let outspoken conservatives like Milo Yiannopoulos speak on their campuses out of concern that their appearances could lead to violence.
One proponent of Ward’s bill, the Alliance Defending Freedom, is a national conservative organization that consists of Christian leaders uniting, its website says, to defend religious freedom against “secular forces chipping away at our nation’s Judeo-Christian roots.”
The group also has a “Center for Academic Freedom” that has litigated more than 400 cases involving campus speech.
The center represents a student organization at California State University in Fresno, which said in a lawsuit that it had received permission to chalk pro-life messages around campus in 2017. A professor, however, erased the messages, claiming the students had no right to speak outside the speech zone.
Tyson Langhofer, the center’s director and senior legal counsel, told the Louisiana House committee Wednesday that liberties are under assault on public university campuses. He said precedents from Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment need to be codified in law.
Uma Subramanian, deputy commissioner for legal and external affairs of the Louisiana Board of Regents, said, however, that legal precedents evolve and that it is the role of the courts to interpret the law.
Rep. Stephen Carter, R-Baton Rouge, offered a set of amendments on LSU’s behalf to try to align the bill with campus policies.
One of the highly debated amendments would have continued to allow universities to designate areas for expressive activity.
Jason Droddy, the chief of staff for the LSU president, explained that public universities are considered limited public forums. But, he said, they also are government entities with a mandate to educate students.
That means they may regulate speech activities so long as the rules are neutral in terms of the speakers’ viewpoints and reasonably related to their purpose of educating students.
Most colleges have tailored their rules to a statement in 2014 by that the U.S. Supreme Court that the First Amendment “does not guarantee the right to communicate one's views at all times and places or in any manner that may be desired.”
Droddy said LSU has designated places on campus, such as Free Speech Plaza, where time, place and manner conditions are pre-approved. Other sites on campus require pre-approval to avoid classroom disruption.
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, shared Droddy’s concern that free speech needs to be balanced with campus safety.
She said the bill might allow an alt-right group to protest in front of an African-American or women’s center, escalating tensions and endangering students before the university even knew about the confrontation.
Ward responded that the amendments would essentially gut the bill. He directed Rep. Smith to a provision in the bill that prohibits inciting imminent lawless action or harassment.
With Landry’s tie-breaking vote, the amendments allowing universities to designate places for expressive activity were rejected.
Rep. Joe Bouie, D-New Orleans, expressed concern that Ward’s bill broadly defines a “student organization” to include a group in the process of seeking official recognition. Bouie said this could allow unrecognized organizations to invite controversial speakers that pose security risks.
College Republicans of LSU arranged for Yiannopoulos to speak at the university in April. But his appearance was cancelled because Yiannopoulos’ staff did not acquire the proper insurance. Yiannopoulos spoke at the university in September 2016.
Four students-- all white and conservative-- testified for the bill Wednesday. Two attended Louisiana schools, and two were from out-of- state colleges.
One student from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, said she had sued because her college did not let her organization show a pro-life display in the main quadrangle.
Nicholas Foster, president of the Young Americans for Freedom at LSU, said he and two other students that were asked to leave a quad area while passing a “free speech ball,” a beach ball on which students could write anything.
Joseph Shamp, University of Louisiana at Lafayette chapter president and state chair of the Young Americans for Liberty, said he was asked to leave LSU’s Free Speech Plaza in March 2017 when passing out pocket constitutions.
LSU’s policy says recognized student organizations must obtain approval before distributing printed material on campus.