Free speech is important, say political activists on the Left and the Right.
That’s a no-brainer, yet it’s also where consensus ends.
House Bill 527, Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech — which would buttress speech rights for University of North Carolina students and faculty — is stuck. The bill sits in the House Education-Universities committee after an April 19 vote blocking it from moving closer to the House floor.
The ACLU spoke out against the bill in committee, saying it was unclear what lawmakers were trying accomplish.
The bill would chill speech rather than protect it, said Susanna Birdsong, an ACLU spokeswoman.
“A constitutional right to free expression is simply fundamental to our democracy, so of course we agree with the bill sponsors that even when we find the content of someone’s speech objectionable, or even downright hateful, the answer is more speech, not government restrictions. [But] this is overly broad language,” she said.
Birdsong cited portions of the bill that would disallow campus protestors to “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”
The legislation is vague on the definition of such infringement, she said, saying the language is contradictory — protecting some forms of speech while discriminating against others.
House Democrats agreed, tying the vote and preventing H.B. 527 from moving onward.
The bill still has a good chance of making it to the House floor, since several Republican members were absent from the meeting, Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, told Carolina Journal.
Another vote will be taken during the committee’s next session.
Democrats showed they don’t care to protect First Amendment rights, Millis said.
“There is not a problem with the bill. The bill is very narrowly drafted. It’s extremely polished. ”
Tom Shanahan, general counsel for UNC and the Board of Governors, told committee members H.B. 527 is unnecessary; university administration already upholds a free speech code.
Shanahan too said that the language of the bill was vague, inviting legal confusion and potential lawsuits.
The Constitution already prohibits free speech violations, and UNC respects speech rights, he said.
“Our campuses are places where you debate ideas. We are used to accommodating disputes. We are used to planning for potential disruption, and we do it according to the First Amendment.”
But speech violations within the UNC system are very real and often aren’t publicized by students who fear backlash from faculty or administrators, said Anna Beavon Gravely, state director for Generation Opportunity, a non-partisan millennial group.
“People feel like this is a solution in search of a problem, when in reality this is a problem that has been glossed over for so long. It’s to the point that students who are not in touch or understanding of what free speech actually is are thinking this is the norm,” she said.
“Students who are upset about that and who want to speak freely and are being told that their opinions are unwelcome if they differ from the popular belief or opinion of their professors.”
That’s why it’s necessary to double-down on First Amendment protections, Millis said.
“Just the fact that the board of governors has a policy doesn’t protect students and faculty from having their free speech violated, he concluded. “Their only recourse is to sue constituent institutions. There’s no front end or pre-emptive measures for them to take. This is what this bill does.”
Click here for more specifics on the details of H.B. 527.