Ligon Campus Speech Bill Stirs Debate

By Wes Wolfe | The Brunswick News | February 20, 2020

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State Sen. William Ligon’s campus free speech bill generated enough excitement Wednesday that debate on the legislation continued well past 6 p.m., more than two hours after the meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to begin.

But it ended without resolution. The committee declined to vote on the bill.

“The purpose of this is to ensure a couple things — that the First Amendment rights of free speech of students are recognized and honored on our university campuses, and what we’ve seen over a period of time is that suits have to be filed, from time to time, to assert and protect those rights,” Ligon, R-White Oak, said. “This is an effort to avoid that. “It’ll ultimately save the students from having to go through that process, and it will also save the universities’ costs in paying out attorneys’ fees and damages when those suits have been brought.”

Similar legislation has passed legislatures in more than a dozen states.

Ligon brought the committee’s attention on four lines in the bill, which he said basically eliminates so-called free-speech zones which are a cause of a significant amount of litigation.

“That’s when a certain area is designated on campus where you can exercise your free speech rights, when in fact there are other public forums across campus where those rights can and should be recognized, and the law would say they can be recognized,” he said.

The last time free speech issues generated headlines close to home was at the College of Coastal Georgia in 2017 when basketball players took a knee during the playing of the national anthem.

Megan Amstutz, the college’s interim president at the time, said in a statement, “The College of Coastal Georgia reveres our national anthem and the flag of the United States and believes that Americans should stand as a mark of respect during the anthem. At the same time, we respect the constitutional right of our students to exercise their freedom of speech as protected under the First Amendment. In the midst of this national dialogue, our focus is on fostering civility as people express differing opinions in our community.”

The college held forums on the matter, which one student, John Lilliston, said he didn’t think players — representing the whole school and supported with student fees — should be protesting at games while wearing the team uniform.

Another student, Devin Roberts, said the protest wasn’t meant to be disrespectful to those who are serving or have served in the military.

“We are grateful that they have fought for us to give us this freedom,” he said. “But no one has a right to tell us how to protest when that (First) Amendment gives us the right to protest.”

State Sen. Bill Cowsert, R-Athens, said he’s worried the bill would protect the kind of speech exercised by College of Coastal Georgia athletes in 2017 and prevent benching or cutting athletes from the team in retribution. He said he wasn’t certain current law extends that protection.

University System of Georgia senior counsel Brooke Bowen testified that the system has minor concerns with the bill.

She said it is supportive of its purpose but notes the bill has definitions that don’t square with Supreme Court precedent and could subject state colleges and universities to violating nondiscrimination clauses in federal law.

Bowen said the university system talked with Ligon and the bill’s supporters about making revisions and expects talks to continue.

Nicole Robinson, a policy analyst with the ACLU of Georgia, said her organization opposea the bill in general and is particularly concerned about a section she said prevents schools from denying benefits or privileges to a student group based on its actual or perceived activity.

“This language is in contrast to legal precedent that has found universities can deny benefits and...funding to organizations that engage in discriminatory conduct, especially if the student organization doesn’t allow all students to join,” Robinson said.