Free Speech Takes Work

Campus Rally

Free speech is currently up for a vote in Georgia. Specifically, campus free speech protections are being argued in the Georgia Assembly with SB 318 and HB 995. We live under a government that has found it reasonable to regulate even those enumerated rights specifically protected by the U.S. Constitution. When a campus administration violates students’ protected rights, students are tasked with suing their schools to allow their voices to be heard. Administrations might be willing to ignore Supreme Court rulings, but when they lose in court, taxpayers must pick up the bill. Students suffer under bad policies and are targeted for demanding change. A chilling effect is put on all speech, no matter the faith, no matter the political perspective, no matter the group. Citizens should not have to continually sue to ensure the Bill of Rights is respected.

SB 318 and HB 995, currently in committee, will give students at public universities in Georgia unequivocal rights to hear and engage with rich public discourses. This is a three-part bill:

Firstly, it eliminates quarantined “free speech zones” which physically contain political, religious, or other controversial speech to certain areas of campus. Schools might reasonably limit protests in the dorm rooms at two in the morning, but common areas should be open to discourse. As it sits now, students are given less than one percent of the entire campus for “free” speech.

Secondly, this bill removes speech codes as they are currently formulated. Although a level of decorum is always hoped for, college administrators should not set the standard for allowable speech. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have again decided where the line be drawn in such a case, which disallows “prohibit[ing] speech on the basis of listener reaction alone.” We can limit speech that
would incite immediate violence, but that’s not the issue faced by universities. We can aspire to well-reasoned debates, based upon measured explanation of personal experience, philosophy, and solid research, but it’s not the university’s job to police tone or  acceptability.

Lastly, this bill ensures freedom of association. Simply, clubs and organizations can decide the criteria for membership. Universities frequently reject an organization because they have another club that has nearly the same mission. But when that judgement is made, it is done by administration that does not appreciate differences that may seem stark to those involved politically, religiously, or in their cultural sphere. And yes, student organizations should be able to choose the criteria for their membership. Reasonable arguments can be made for admitting only women, African American, international students, Christians, or atheist members into a supportive student-led space. And for every Christian group that may not welcome everyone, there will be four more that will welcome members with open arms. That competition of ideas and perspectives – arguably the whole purpose of education – will thrive.

Ultimately, that is what this bill stands for. Do we as citizens of the state of Georgia believe that some viewpoints can be forced upon folks? Or do we believe that despite our disagreements, that force has never changed a heart. We bring people to our ideas through patience, kindness, respect, and love. Force does nothing but pull people apart. It breeds resentment and hostility. As always, government is not the answer.

If you would like to help, please call or email your state representative and your state senator and let them know you support this bill. Find yours here through this website:

https://openstates.org/find_your_legislator/

Bobby Rouse is the Grassroots Engagement Director for Americans For Prosperity here in Georgia.

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