South Carolina lawmakers are considering a bill that requires colleges to not interfere with students’ freedom of speech and the speakers they invite.
The Campus Free Expression Act would prevent any four-year, two-year or technical school from blocking student-invited speakers from visiting campus, allow for civil penalties for those who interfere with freedom of speech and and require colleges to create a formal free expression policy.
“There’s a trend around the country to create free-speech zones,” said bill co-sponsor Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Berkeley. “This bill is an attempt to head that off.”
Colleges throughout the country have drawn criticism for limiting freedom of expression to “free-speech zones” and limiting protests or demonstrations outside those areas.
Grooms cited the 2018 vandalism of a pro-life display at Clemson University, and the university’s response to the reports, as an example of free speech being threatened on the state’s college campuses.
“I’m all for colleges having a plan in place for free speech,” said Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw. However, “I’m a little concerned about ... micromanaging what’s going on.”
The legislation is modeled on a 2017 proposal by the Goldwater Institute, the Arizona-based conservative think-tank named for the late U.S. senator and presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, Grooms said. The bill would still allow universities to regulate the time, location and method of a demonstration or protest.
The secondary goal of the bill is to make sure speakers of all political leanings can attend S.C. college campuses without being deterred by administrative hassles such as high security costs.
“(It) has to be the same guidelines,” Grooms said. “You can’t say we don’t want Donald Trump to come so it’s gonna be a million-dollar bond someone has to put up for security.”
Security costs for controversial speakers have caused problems at other universities in the country. In 2017, when University of California Berkeley invited conservative commentator Ann Coulter to campus, security costs reached $600,000, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“At the end of the day, this is going to allow a student to invite an outside group no matter what the university says,” said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington.