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Louisiana governor vetoes campus free speech bill

Governor John Bel Edwards vetoed HB 269 yesterday, a bill that would have better protected free speech on public college campuses in Louisiana. The bill was sent to Gov. Edwards with strong bipartisan support, passing the state’s House of Representatives 95-0 and its Senate 30-2.

The bill, sponsored by State Representative Lance Harris, was patterned on many of the best parts of the Goldwater Institute’s model legislation. It included several important provisions that would have protected campus free speech.

HB 269 would have codified the standard of peer-on-peer harassment set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education (1999) to better protect students’ expressive rights, while it also would have protected students from discriminatory harassment by their peers. Schools would also have been forced to abandon the use of misleadingly labeled “free speech zones.” According to FIRE’s most recent “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report, roughly 1 in 10 colleges surveyed maintain these restrictive policies.

The new bill also would have addressed a worrying growing trend: groups of people employing heckler’s vetoes on campuses to prevent controversial speakers from delivering their remarks. The bill would have avoided mandatory minimum punishments for hecklers and instead instructed each institution to create “[a] range of disciplinary sanctions for anyone under the jurisdiction of the institution who substantially and materially disrupts the function of the institution or the free expression of others.”

Upon vetoing the HB 269, Gov. Edwards stated that the bill was “a solution in search of a problem,” and “unnecessary and overly burdensome.” While there are some modest changes FIRE would have made to the bill, it’s clear that the bill was not merely a “solution in search of a problem.” To the contrary, Louisiana has six “red light” and three “yellow light” public institutions in FIRE’s Spotlight Database. Louisiana cannot claim even a single “green light” school, meaning that tens of thousands of college students in Louisiana attend institutions that maintain unconstitutional policies.

FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project is sponsoring litigation against administrators at Louisiana State University on behalf of Teresa Buchanan, a former LSU professor fired for comments made while teaching. This too shows there is a need for legislative protection of expression in Louisiana, and FIRE is happy to help Louisiana legislators address this issue in the future.

FIRE is saddened that students enrolled in Louisiana’s public institutions of higher education will not enjoy strong statutory protections of their expressive rights this year. We hope to be able to report on additional legislation in the state’s next legislative session.

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