The state House has passed a bill intended to protect freedom of speech on college and university campuses across North Carolina.
House Bill 527 passed in a bipartisan vote last week ahead of crossover, with 88 legislators approving of the bill. Thirty-two Democrats opposed the bill.
Fourteen Democrat legislators crossed the aisle to support the legislation, which has been pushed by Republicans to protect free speech that they feel has been under attack on campuses.
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Chris Millis (R-Pender) and Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe), would require the University of North Carolina Board of Governors to develop and adopt a policy that preserves the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly that are guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution as well as the state Constitution.
The bill would require the policy be implemented across all of the state universities and community colleges.
“It’s critical that we reverse the trend of free speech being impeded on public university campuses in North Carolina and preempt further violations of those rights by fostering an environment of open thought and expression in the halls of higher education across North Carolina,” Millis said. “Students and faculty should not be forced to resort to litigation to protect their own First Amendment rights.”
The bill would direct the Board of Governors to form a Committee on Free Expression, as other universities have had for decades, and report annually on the status of free expression at each institution, including a description of administrative handling of the new protection policies.
The bill would also require each university to review the policies in freshman orientation sessions and identify the individual on each campus responsible for ensuring compliance with the policy provisions.
The bill as it passed the House requires that the policy adopted by the Board of Governors include a statement recognizing that it is not the “proper role of a university to shield individuals from speech protected by the U.S. Constitution,” prohibiting the university from stopping students or faculty from expressing a certain view of social policy.
The bill would require the policy to include a statement guaranteeing students and faculty the right to discuss any issue or topic and engage in legal, peaceful demonstrative activity, as long as it is not substantially disruptive.
The policy would also recognize that parks, sidewalks, plazas and similar places on campuses are public forums.
The bill would not be without an enforcement provision; a disciplinary process would exist for individuals interfering with the protected free expression rights of others on campus under the legislation.
But the bill does not give a student or faculty member the freedom to say anything without repercussions and does not shield threatening speech, violations of law or harassment, as well as other limitations.
The bill would become active June 30, 2017 and the first annual report from the Committee of Free Expression would be due September 1, 2018.
The bill is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, where dozens of bills await committee referrals following the passage of the crossover deadline last Thursday.