Florida legislature bans campus free speech zones

Jasiel Lopez/Staff Writer

Florida Governor Rick Scott has signed a bill that bans free speech zones on university campuses and prohibits disruption of a previously scheduled or reserved activity.

After it was repeatedly postponed in committee, the original bill, HB 909 “Free Expression on Campus Act,” was modified and added as an amendment to the State’s higher education bill SB 4, which passed the Florida legislature on Tuesday, March 6. Scott signed the bill into law on Monday, March 12.

Institutions of higher education may not designate any area of campus as a free-speech zone and universities must allow anyone to speak freely on any outdoor areas of campus, said the bill.

Additionally, the section of the bill titled “Free Expression on Campus,” makes universities subject to lawsuits if students, faculty or staff disrupt a person or group’s speech on campus.

Injured parties may sue to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief, reasonable court costs and attorney fees. Previous versions of the bill, which did not make it to the final printing, awarded compensatory damages to aggrieved parties, setting a minimum of $500 paid by the university.

This legislation comes months after Richard Spencer, an outspoken white supremacist, spoke at the University of Florida and was met with protests. Some, like Ana Guevara, a staff member with Florida Student Power Network, believes that this legislation was designed to protect controversial speakers like him.

Florida Student Power Network held a meeting to discuss their lobbying efforts against the bill which would ban campus free speech zones. Photo courtesy of Florida Student Power Network

Guevara participated in lobbying efforts to oppose this legislation. The organization’s mission is to harness the power of students and youth to create tangible change in our communities and our country, according to Guevara.

Because the bill may prevent counter-protests, like the one at UF, Guevara said that the bill is protecting hate speech.

“This bill is solving a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. The only time that we’ve had an issue is when Richard Spencer came on campus,” said Guevara to Student Media.

Guevara added that students have the right to defend their dignity and should not be punished for it.

“We believe, as an organization and I, as an individual, that free speech should be protected but there is a line between hate speech and free speech,” she said.

Joe Cohn, the Legislative and Policy Director of the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, said that there should be no opposition to the idea of people having the right to speak on public areas of a university, in reference to the elimination of free speech zones.

FIRE was founded in 1999, with the mission to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” The organization’s website claims that “freedom of speech is under continuous threat at many of America’s campuses.”

“The ideal is a country with institutions of higher education in which people can engage each other on issues without censorship, where ideas can be discussed, challenged and debated,” Cohn said to Student Media.

FIRE’s mission and the ideal Cohn describes is disputed among some who study free speech law.

Stanley Fish, a legal scholar and former law professor at FIU, said universities are institutions of higher education and not simply platforms for free speech. Because universities are institutions which have a primary role to educate, they are not obligated to provide a free speech zone since it is not an academic value, according to Fish.

“The key distinction is between free speech as a value in a democracy where everyone has his or her say and free inquiry which goes on in a university,” said Fish.

If universities decide to have extra-curricular activities, they should vet those activities based on the educational value they provide, according to Fish.

Cohn, however, thinks the argument for vetting content based on its educational value makes sense in the classroom but not in outdoor, open areas.

“The same argument could have been used to prevent Vietnam War protesters,” said Cohn, alluding to the role that university campuses played in the civil rights movements of the 60s.

In a landmark case Tinker v. Des Moines, students were barred by their school from wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War. The case concluded, according to the court opinion, that students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.

However, the case was decided in part because no evidence existed which showed petitioners affected “the mission” of higher education institutions, according to the Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Abe Fortas in Tinker v. Des Moines. However, the opinion also stated that justifications might exist to limit activities if it did affect the purpose of higher education.

When Milo Yiannopoulos, a provocative conservative speaker, spoke at UC Berkeley, the university spent $3.9 million to provide security for the event, according to the LA Times. Fish pointed out that expenditures like these can prevent a university from fulfilling its primary purpose of providing education.

“It would take money away from the core educational mission, because all the money would be going to protecting those speakers,” said Fish.

Vice-President for Student Affairs Larry Lunsford, said that the university will comply with the new law by no longer designating free-speech zones. He clarified that, currently, the university does not limit individuals to speak only at specific areas of the campus.

“They legally can go elsewhere as long as they don’t disrupt the orderly process of conducting classes or university business,” said Lunsford.

Lunsford said that the exercise of free speech should not interfere with the academic process. He assured that both education and free expression are guaranteed at FIU and that they are not mutually exclusive.

“Both campuses have large enough areas to allow individuals who want to exercise free speech to do so without interrupting classes being taught at the same time,” said Lunsford.

Ralph Wilson, Research Director and Co-Founder of UnKoch My Campus, said outside groups who want access into college campuses are behind this bill.

“The free speech law has spread across the country with the help of Koch’s network,” said Wilson to Student Media.

UnKoch My Campus is a cooperative campaign to expose and expel undue donor influence in academia, according to the website. The organization points to the donations made to universities by the Charles Koch Foundation and other Koch family foundations that seek to influence higher education.

The Center for Public Integrity uncovered the distribution of more than $19 million across U.S. colleges by Charles Koch in 2013 to further his political agenda.

Generation Opportunity, a political advocacy group, funded by the Koch network, lobbied in Tallahassee for the “Free Expression on Campus Act.”

Wilson describes these groups to be fake, like astro-turfs, which are groups that are not organic but pumped up by outside funding. He sees Generation Opportunity’s advocacy for the free speech bill as another campaign by outside groups to influence universities.

And while FIRE does accept funds from the Koch family, Cohn said it doesn’t receive support exclusively from them. Cohn also pointed to FIRE’s intellectually diverse advisory board as a testament to their unbiased work.

But Wilson disagrees.

“When political discourse and political experience happen on campus as genuine product of the student experience, it’s a legitimate part of the academic mission,” said Wilson.


Feature Image is from an October 2017 article which showed the location of FIU’s free speech zones.

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