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Louisiana governor signs campus free speech bill into law; law needs technical improvement

Last week, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed into law SB364, a bill to protect student expression at public college campuses in the state. The bill passed with bipartisan support in the Louisiana legislature, with votes of 58-25 in the House of Representatives, and 33-0 in the Senate. While the bill helpfully protects several important aspects of campus free expression, it contains some technical errors that need to be resolved.

Helpfully, the bill declares that the “outdoor areas of a public postsecondary education shall be deemed traditional public forums and open to expressive activities.” This provision, along with following language, eliminates so-called “free speech zones” at public institutions of higher education in Louisiana. Louisiana therefore joins Virginia, Missouri, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, Utah, North Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia in banning public colleges and universities from relegating student expression to free speech zones.

SB 364 also protects belief-based student organizations by prohibiting a university from discriminating against or otherwise punishing those organizations that require its “leaders or members of the organization” to “affirm or adhere to the organization’s sincerely held beliefs.” This provision provides an important protection for freedom of association at Louisiana’s public postsecondary education institutions.

Unhelpfully, however, the law contains two conflicting standards for determining when “time, place, and manner” restrictions are permissible at public colleges and universities in the state. The first time the standard is mentioned, the bill states that a “public postsecondary education institution may maintain and enforce reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions narrowly tailored in service of a significant institutional interest . . .” [Emphasis added]. This is the standard used by the United States Supreme Court. However, the second time the standard is mentioned, the bill states that time place and manner restrictions must be “necessary to achieve a significant institutional interest.” [Emphasis added]. These conflicting standards are likely to make it difficult for students, administrators, and courts to determine the appropriateness of time, place, and manner restrictions on campuses.

FIRE is pleased that the legislature and governor provided important protections for student expression at public institutions of higher education in Louisiana, and we stand ready to assist legislators in addressing the technical issues in the bill during the next legislative session.

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