- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Florida lawmakers have passed a bill that eliminates “free speech zones” at public universities and allows schools to be sued for restricting campus protests.

The Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2018 passed Monday in the House and Senate by votes of 84-28 and 33-5, respectively, sending it to Governor Rick Scott’s desk where it awaits his approval.

Introduced by state Rep. Bob Rommel, Naples Republican, the bill contains a provision that prohibits public universities from establishing so-called “free speech zones” and instead designates generally all outdoor campus areas as “traditional public forums,” effectively keeping colleges from restricting protest activity to certain areas.

“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,” Mr. Rommel said, The Gainesville Sun reported.

If signed by Mr. Scott into law, Florida would immediately join just a handful of states with laws in place banning colleges from enforcing free-speech zones.

“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,” said Demetrius Minor, the coalitions director of the Florida office of Generation Opportunity, a right-of-center group that supported the bill.

Last-minute efforts waged by Democrats in both the House and Senate on Monday failed to strip Mr. Rommel’s language from the bill, despite concerns its language would open public universities up to litigation and give controversial groups like white supremacists and neo-Nazis a tool to suppress protesters, The Sun reported.

“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,” reads part of the bill.

“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,” the legislation continues.

Aside from those restrictions, “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,” according to the bill.

“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,” the bill reads. “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.”

The American Civil Liberties Union previously said it supported the bill, sans the language holding colleges liable if a person’s speech is disrupted, The Sun reported.

“This bill will chill freedom of expression on our state’s college campuses,” said Kara Gross, a policy counsel for ACLU of Florida. “Because it would be up to our state’s institutions of higher learning to expend significant resources in defending against such frivolous lawsuits, this bill incentivizes those institutions to restrict students’ speech and peaceful assembly out of concern that someone might boo too loudly.”

Four states — Virginia, Missouri, Arizona and Kentucky — have previously passed legislation prohibiting free-speech zones at public colleges. About 11 percent of more than 450 institutions studied have rules in place limiting freedom of speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education civil liberties group, Inside Higher Ed reported last month.

• Andrew Blake can be reached at ablake@washingtontimes.com.

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