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Lawmakers Seek to Ban Campus “Free Speech Zones” and Make Universities Liable

| February 6, 2018

Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican sponsoring the controversial bill, claims the visit by white supremacist Richard Spencer to the University of Florida last year has nothing to do with it. Opponents of the bill, including lawmakers at today's committee hearing, ridiculed the claim. (Digital spy)

Dennis Baxley, the Ocala Republican sponsoring the controversial bill, claims the visit by white supremacist Richard Spencer to the University of Florida last year has nothing to do with it. Opponents of the bill, including lawmakers at today’s committee hearing, ridiculed the claim. (Digital spy)

Free-speech zones would be banned and state universities and colleges could be sued for up to $100,000 in damages if students or others “willfully” interfere with campus speakers or protestors, under a bill approved Tuesday by the Senate Education Committee.


“This is to address a flourishing of the limitation of free speech, particularly across the country. Many of our universities are restricting free speech to free-speech zones,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, who is sponsoring the measure (SB 1234). “And there’s something antithetical about a free-speech environment saying you can only do it in this little square.”

The more controversial portion of Baxley’s bill would make universities and colleges liable for up to $100,000 in compensatory damages if students, faculty, staff members or others “materially disrupt” campus speakers or others expressing their views, including by distributing literature. The schools found in violation would also be liable for court costs and attorney fees.

The violation would have to be done “willfully,” which is a higher standard than a similar House bill (HB 909) that would also hold universities and colleges liable for disrupting campus speakers.

Baxley said he added the “willful” standard at the request of the state Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s 12 public universities.

Universities need be held accountable for protecting campus speakers, Baxley said, but “at the same time we want to cushion that liability when it is things that have nothing to do with their responsibility.”

Raising concerns about the cost of lawsuits against universities and colleges, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, tried to remove the liability provision, but his amendment was defeated in a voice vote.

Baxley said he was not motivated by any particular instance in Florida, but said he was advancing the legislation as a way to encourage more civil debate.

“We’ve got to learn how to have civil discussions and debate about ideas on our campuses,” Baxley said. “We can’t simply just tell people to keep quiet.”

Joe Cohn, representing the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a free-speech advocacy group, testified in favor of the bill. He cited examples where Florida schools were restricting speakers to free-speech zones or setting up pre-approval processes for speakers or demonstrators that he said violated court rulings on free speech.

“There is a lot of stuff going on here that needs to be addressed,” Cohn said.

But Kara Gross, representing the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, opposed the bill, saying it would have a “chilling” effect on free speech on campuses.

“Just to be clear, this bill holds universities — public institutions of higher education — liable for compensatory damages, court costs and attorney fees for students booing too loudly,” Gross said. “You can imagine the chilling effect this will have as universities put pressure on students to not speak out.”

Gross said the ACLU supports the provision that banned free-speech zones on the campuses.

The Senate Education Committee supported the bill in a 7-4 vote. The measure next heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

–Lloyd Dunkelberger, News Service of Florida

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6 Responses for “Lawmakers Seek to Ban Campus “Free Speech Zones” and Make Universities Liable”

  1. RickG says:

    Well one way to limit free speech is to limit what colleges and universities can do on their own campuses.

  2. Pogo says:

    @Follow the billionaires’ money

    This report should have been: Right wing fat cats hire Florida undertaker to represent them. Sad.

    Young Fascists on Campus: Turning Point USA and Its Far-Right Connections

    The Trump administration has emboldened racists to spread their messages of hate on college campuses.

    By Kristina Khan, Shane Burley / Truthout

    “…TPUSA, famous for its aggressive tactics against leftist professors across US campuses, was founded in 2012 by a disgruntled Charlie Kirk, who failed to get into the United States Military Academy at West Point. Kirk hardly built TPUSA into the organization it is today, however; the nonprofit is funded largely by Republican mega-donors and is a source of controversy for allegedly funding student government campaigns on several campuses…”

    Full article
    https://www.alternet.org/right-wing/turning-point-usa-campus-fascists

  3. Anonymous says:

    Unconstitutional! Nothing in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that I have ever read limits free speech to a certain area anywhere in this nation. This type of law can and WILL cut both ways. The liberal and Politically correct portions of our nation are trying to undo or re-write the history of our nation and control free speech, and free thinking and expression of ideas through distorting and reinterpreting the meaning of the U S Constitution to suit there present political goals.

  4. Richard says:

    All this bullshit about “free speech zones” and “safe haven zones” has gotten Way out of control not only in Florida but across the country. It’s about time someone steps up to the plate to eliminate them. The entire country needs to follow suit. So much hatred in this country and it’s all on Bush & Obama’s shoulders. Will it ever stop? Nope! People today are SO much different than when I was growing up between the mid 40’s to the mid 60’s and it’s not doing any good for the people or the country. The end times are near!

  5. just me says:

    LOL “Free-speech zones would be banned and state universities and colleges” This “free speech zone BS makes it sound as IF universities and collages LIKE free speech. when in all reality it is just the opposite. They are saying one can only have “free speech” within a place and time they say. This also for the most part is ONLY for speech that gos against liberal views. The leftist who dominate “higher education” are predominantly liberals who dont like any speech that gos against their indoctrination of students into their ideology.

  6. Sherry says:

    OK. . . let’s really talk about this and take it to the “extreme”. There is unlawful speech, and I would like to know when and how we are finally going to enforce the laws that should be protecting us. Here are a couple of examples:

    1. Inciting to Riot- Under federal law, a riot is a public disturbance involving an act of violence by one or more persons who are assembled in a group of at least three people. The act of violence must be one that presents a clear and present danger of injury to another person or damage to another person’s property. Threatening to commit a violent act in such a group situation that could injure another person or damage property is also considered a riot if one of the persons in the group “has the ability at the time” to carry out the threatened violence. Inciting a riot applies to a person who organizes, encourages, or participates in a riot. It can apply to one who urges or instigates others to riot.

    2. Pornogrophy- After grappling with the obscenity problem in many cases during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Supreme Court laid out “basic guidelines” for jurors in obscenity cases in its 1973 decision Miller v. California. These include:

    Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest.

    Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law.

    Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

    Child pornography
    Another type of pornography that receives no First Amendment protection is child pornography. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in New York v. Ferber that states could prohibit child pornography even if somehow the material in question did not meet the Miller obscenity standard. The high court noted that a work taken as a whole could have serious artistic value but also “embody the hardest core of child pornography.”

    In other words. . . “Freedom of Speech” already has its legal limits. Now, they just need to be enforced!

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