News: Quick Takes

Campus free speech gets a boost in neighboring Tennessee

Tennessee has weighed in on the free speech debate and has passed legislation to safeguard First Amendment rights at public universities.

House Bill 538, the Campus Free Speech Protection Act, mirrors legislation now under consideration in the North Carolina Senate.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan research organization, collaborated with both states on the respective legislation.

Most notably, Tennessee’s bill prohibits public universities from disinviting speakers, no matter how controversial they may be.

It also bars campuses from creating “speech zones” that limit students to speaking openly on only a few areas of campus and restricts faculty members from “introducing controversial matters that have no relationship to the subject taught.”

Additionally, the bill includes a provision that punishes any student who shouts down a speaker.

North Carolina’s House Bill 527, the Restore/Preserve Campus Free Speech Act, would protect public university students from speech violations.

Both bills are based on a statement on free expression adopted in 2015 by the University of Chicago.

Introduced in March, H.B. 527 faced pushback from House Democrats who said the University of North Carolina’s Board of Governors should not enforce First Amendment rights.

H.B. 527 would require the board to enact a broad speech policy to govern all 16 of its campuses.

Each UNC campus now operates under separate free speech rules.

Similar to Tennessee’s bill, H.B. 527 would ensure UNC campuses are open to all speakers, regardless of viewpoint. It would also ban free speech zones, prevent universities from acting on political views, and penalize students who interfere with others’ speech rights.

The original version of the bill included a cause of action for lawsuits. That portion was removed after protests from UNC administrators and board members.

Little is more important these days than the protection of students’ speech rights, said H.B. 527 sponsor Rep. Chris Millis, R-Pender, a graduate of North Carolina State University.

“A lot has changed since I walked off N.C. State’s campus,” he told Carolina Journal in an April interview. “There’s nothing wrong with establishing a committee within the Board of Governors to ensure that our constituent institutions are abiding by aspects of freedom of speech.”

Note: This story has been updated to correct a statement calling Tennessee House Bill 538 the “Milo Bill.” That piece of legislation preceded the version of the bill that last week was signed into law.