University system ends era of free-speech zones on Georgia college campuses

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When Georgia college students return to their campuses in the fall, they might engage in more heated intellectual debate than they are used to.

The State Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s 26 public universities, voted on Tuesday to change their institutions’ free speech policies to bring them into line with newly signed state legislation.

The new policy largely removes so-called campus free-speech zones, areas of campus open to protests and gatherings. Zones are a relatively new concept in Georgia that have come under fire in recent years, particularly from religious and conservative groups, who say the idea restricts First Amendment rights and opens the state to lawsuits.

Last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of a former Georgia Gwinnett College student who was unable to distribute religious literature on campus.

Under the change, which is due to take effect July 1, members of the campus community — students, faculty, staff and guests — can have access to outdoor parts of campus to protest. Schools will have the ability to set certain restrictions such as banning nighttime protests outside a hall of residence, but these restrictions cannot be based on speech content.

Individuals who are not part of the campus community may be restricted to specific high-traffic parts of campus and required to comply with other restrictions, including the requirement to make reservations.

A sign on the campus of Georgia State University indicates a free speech zone. Beginning in July, students, faculty, staff and their guests will be able to exercise their right to free speech in any outdoor space on campus. Recorder Ross Williams/Georgia

“Obviously the Board of Regents is trying to thread the needle here by allowing freedom of speech across campus, without it being disruptive, and allowing people to make their case in a way that supports what all institutions of higher learning should support, which is free and open discussion of ideas,” said Richard T. Griffiths, President Emeritus of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Others say some campus protests are less about the open exchange of ideas and more about threats and intimidation. While the idea was in the Legislative Assembly, criticism expressed fear it could embolden fringe groups who go beyond distasteful talk to harass students because of their race, religion or sexual orientation.

Georgia Tech student Alex Ames said she and her classmates sometimes roam the campus in groups to protect themselves from vitriolic protesters, who are particularly prone to yelling at Muslim, Jewish or LGBT students.

Ames said some of the nasty protests were at the behest of groups of students, meaning they could have free rein on campus in the future.

“Now there aren’t really any places on campus where marginalized students can be safe from the appearance of these extremist groups,” Ames said. “And USG policy doesn’t just mean that students and faculty and staff can go on campus, it also means that outside, guest groups, like these extremist groups, you know, those who hold signs saying “Muslims will go to hell,” or use slurs referencing LGBTQ students when walking around, now these groups could be crossing campus.

Griffiths called the Regents’ plan to open up campuses to people who live or work there while maintaining restrictions on foreigners as a nuanced and appropriate solution.

“Freedom of speech is one of the great rights of our Constitution,” he said. “But as with all of our great rights, we have to balance our rights with the rights of others, and that’s a beautiful thing when it’s working well, and a challenge when it’s not working, but at the end of the day, it’s the free exchange of ideas in a respectful framework open to dialogue which allows our society to move forward.

For times when the dialogue is not open and respectful, college leaders need to ensure that marginalized students who are being harassed have a way to report it and that administrators are able to respond – it only seems fair when students pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend classes, Ames said.

“It shouldn’t be on students to go out of their way to protest and protect each other when you’re paying tuition to be there,” she said. “And you should be able to walk across campus as a Muslim student or as a queer student without being harassed on your way to class. That’s the university’s responsibility to us.

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