North Carolina has officially passed House Bill 527, now joining the ranks of four other states regarding free speech on college campuses by banning any actions that infringe upon the free speech of others.
Virginia, Utah, Tennessee and Colorado are the only others to have passed the law, but states such as California, Illinois, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin are in the process.
Both the Senate and the House passed the bill with veto-proof majorities. The new law has five main points:
- It prevents administrators on campuses from disinviting any speaker that students or faculty members want to hear from
- “Free speech zones” or areas on campus designated for protesting, will be banned on UNC-system campuses
- Orientation for first-year students now has to include a lesson on First Amendment policies
- The UNC-system Board of Governors must develop a policy that will not “shield individuals from speech protected by the First Amendment, including, without limitation, ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive”
- Member schools must have sanctions for anyone who goes against the free speech of others
The law passed in the House with a vote of 80-31 with 10 supporting Democrats, and the Senate passed by 34-11 with no Democratic support. Governor Roy Cooper chose not to sign the bill, thereby passively allowing ratification.
Joe Cohn, the policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-partisan organization that defends free speech and individual rights on campuses, sees the bill as a positive step towards freedom of speech for students.
“We’re really proud that bills to end free speech zones have been passed in a number of states and almost all with broad bipartisan support,” says Cohn. “I think it’s unequivocally a positive thing that more legislatures are doing right by their students.”
Opposition to HB527 is mainly garnered by higher education administrators who are uneasy about the future autonomy of universities and colleges.
“As a matter of general principles we don’t think these legislative remedies are the way to go,” said Hank Reichman, history professor at California State University—East Bay. “We can certainly conceive of ones that would not be harmful but by and large it should be in the purview of the university and college communities to ensure that people have the right to speak, including to protest against other speakers.”
The American Association of State Colleges and Universities represents schools across the United States so it does not hold an official opinion on whether it supports free speech legislation or not. Nevertheless, a quote taken from usnews.com in an interview with Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, shows concern regarding the heavy one-sided push for the bill as well as the lack of bill uniformity. For some states, the law simply restates individual protections under the First Amendment, while other states like North Carolina enforce harsh consequences on students who impede on campus events.
“We generally think that current laws are adequate and campus policies are what should really address this,” said Harnisch. Our concern is that in many of these laws the proposals are one-sided. They are more about the restriction to demonstrate than the right to speak.”