Will controversial speakers soon be able to sue universities if their event is canceled or interrupted by students? A fiery debate has been ongoing over a bill in the House that would allow for such litigation.
Rep. Bob Rommel’s higher education bill would eliminate free speech zones on campus, effectively making every inch of the campus that is not indoors a free speech area. But the piece of the bill that has some representatives wary is its language allowing guest speakers and their organizations to sue a university that they feel blocked their first amendment rights.
Rep. Carlos G. Smith warns against opening the floodgates allowing speakers pushing fringe politics to sue what he calls an already ”cash-strapped” university system. Smith proposed an amendment last week disallowing those speakers to bring legal action against schools. It was voted down.
“This is something that is going to be a dream for trial attorneys who are defending controversial speakers, white supremacists, bigots, who will now, without this amendment, be able to sue universities,” Smith said.
During debate on the measure, Democratic Senator Larry Lee brought up white nationalist Richard Spencer’s speech in Gainesville last year. He asked whether, under this law, individual students whose voices “overshadow” a controversial speaker’s voice at an appearance can face legal consequences.
“It is my understanding that those in my group could be charged with disrupting Mr. Spencer’s group in their speech under this bill, if I’m correct,” Lee said. “Is that true?”
Rommel says an amendment he filed would make that not the case.
“Under the bill with my amendment on Monday, they would not be able to have a cause of action brought against them,” Rommel said.
Rommel says his amendment ensures legal action can’t be taken against individual students. Only the universities they attend would be held responsible.
“My amendment will make sure that our students can speak and protest freely without being concerned about somebody suing them,” Rommel said.
Democrat representative Richard Stark is asking if this bill would leave universities without any control of who can or can’t speak on their campus. Rommel says, if the decision is based on content of the speech, the school is unable to say no.
“If you read the bill, they do have limited ability to say, ‘You can’t speak today because we have a very large group today, but you can speak tomorrow.’ But they can’t limit based on content or anything else,” Rommel said.
And Representative Ramon Alexander brought up a hypothetical: If a school can’t say no to a controversial speaker, are Universities responsible for things like riots, should they happen?
“If the Ku Klux Klan came on the campus of Florida A&M University to do some type of speech and a riot broke out on FAMU’s campus … based on what you are proposing in your new amendment on Monday, there could be cause of action against FAMU, correct?
“The cause of action would be if FAMU prohibited the KKK from speaking on the campus.”
Peter Lake is a professor of higher education law and policy at Stetson University. He uses a sports analogy to explain how the measure will usher in a new role for public universities.
“Fundamentally, a bill like this casts the institution in a role that’s been evolving, but here it is: We’re becoming referees of contested speech,” Lake said.
Lake predicts the bill will face heavy scrutiny by those who question its constitutionality.
“My guess is what will happen is that someone will challenge the constitutionality of the Florida bill itself,” Lake said. “And most likely it will have to be reviewed in the Florida court system before it’s applied.”
No matter the outcome, Lake says universities will benefit from some direction, any direction, that he says the U.S. Supreme Court has not provided.
“I think a lot of us on campus, across the political spectrum and I’m really not staking any political point on this, have been a little frustrated that the Supreme Court of the United States has not been giving us a lot of recent guidance on campus free speech issues – and we need it.”
Rommel says the University System’s Board of Governors backs his bill.