New Law Bans ’Free Speech Zones’ at Florida Colleges

“Attempting to limit the First Amendment rights of students by tucking them into the hidden corners of campus is not only unconstitutional but goes against the very concept of what a college education should be about.”

On Monday, a large majority of Florida legislators voted to ban “free speech zones” from public campuses and will allow schools to be sued for restricting First Amendment rights, The Washington Times reports.

The bill, the Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2018, introduced by Republican state Rep. Bob Rommel, now awaits Governor Rick Scott’s (R) signature. If it becomes law, public colleges and universities must designate all outdoor areas as “traditional public forums,” thus eliminating the practice of restricting free speech to a small section of concrete in a remote part of campus.

Rommel told a local paper, “I’ve received thousands and thousands of calls from students that feel that their right to speak freely where they want to in outside areas has been infringed upon and how can they stand up to the big university when they’re just a student struggling to get by.”

A group that supported the bill, Generation Opportunity, added, “Attempting to limit the First Amendment rights of students by tucking them into the hidden corners of campus is not only unconstitutional but goes against the very concept of what a college education should be about.”

The bill reads in part:

A person who wishes to engage in an expressive activity in outdoor areas of campus may do so freely, spontaneously and contemporaneously as long as the person’s conduct is lawful and does not materially and substantially disrupt the functioning of the public institution of higher education or infringe upon the rights of other individuals or organizations to engage in expressive activities.

Outdoor areas of campus are considered traditional public forums for individuals, organizations and guest speakers. A public institution of higher education may create and enforce restrictions that are reasonable and content-neutral on time, place, and manner of expression and that are narrowly tailored to a significant institutional interest. Restrictions must be clear and published and must and provide for ample alternative means of expression.

…a public institution of higher education may not designate any area of campus as a free-speech zone or otherwise create policies restricting expressive activities to a particular outdoor area of campus.

Students, faculty or staff of a public institution of higher education may not materially disrupt previously scheduled or reserved activities on campus occurring at the same time. A person whose expressive rights are violated by an action prohibited under this section may bring an action against a public institution of higher education in a court of competent jurisdiction to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief, reasonable court costs and attorney fees.

Though it previously supported the bill, the American Civil Liberties Union takes issue with the addition of legal ramifications that could “chill freedom of expression” and also “incentivizes those institutions to restrict students’ speech and peaceful assembly out of concern that someone might boo too loudly.”

If the bill becomes law, Florida will join Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, and Kentucky all of which already have similar laws.

 

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