How They Voted - SB 318.jpg

ATLANTA — The Georgia Senate passed legislation March 9 that would expand free-speech protections for religious and ideological groups, which opponents say could encourage on-campus discrimination.

Senate Bill 318, called the “Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act,” would bar schools from designating so-called “free-speech zones” where student groups can convene outdoors on campus, including for protest events.

Contentiously, the bill would also prohibit Georgia colleges and universities from denying meeting spaces and funding for “religious, political or ideological student organizations.”

While not protecting students or groups that harass other students, the bill would prevent students who do not abide by a particular group’s belief systems from joining or intentionally disrupting that group’s activities.

The bill would let groups sue a college or university for injunctive relief and seek monetary damages of at least $5,000.

Those provisions aim to keep certain groups from being diluted and to block Georgia schools from adopting so-called “all-comer policies,” in which school administrators have greater say in what activities student organizations can undertake, said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. William Ligon.

Ligon, R-Brunswick, said his bill aims to broadly protect free speech on college campuses, including for groups that may hold beliefs not grounded in fact or reality. Allowing those groups and ideologies to face debate and challenges to their beliefs is a key part of the bill, he said.

“I’m not afraid of having more free speech,” Ligon said. “That’s the great thing about this country and this state, and we need to encourage that as much as possible.”

An amendment made to the bill Monday sought to make clear that athletes on college sports teams would still be subject to team policies on speech and behavior.

The bill passed along party lines by a 32-21 vote. It now heads to the Georgia House of Representatives.

Several Democratic senators objected to the bill Monday over concerns it could hamstring schools from barring organizations that promote race, sex and gender discrimination. They worried the broad speech protections could attract hate-based groups to Georgia college campuses and risk losing federal funds.

“Our state and public college system has come way too far to pass a bill that forces taxpayers to subsidize discrimination,” said Sen. Zahra Karinshak, D-Duluth.

The bill also drew objections from representatives of the University System of Georgia and the American Civil Liberties Union in committee hearings ahead of Monday’s vote.

Some opponents questioned whether the bill is necessary. Colleges and universities can already be held liable in court for violating free-speech protections under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, said Brooke Bowen, a senior legal counsel for the University System.

“We’re committed to making sure that we’re protecting the First Amendment across all of our campuses,” Bowen said at a committee hearing late last month. “But we do believe that if we do get it wrong, there are remedies in federal law for constitutional violations.”

Ligon defended his measure Monday, arguing that without broader speech protections Georgia schools could silence certain religious or political organizations on campus, particularly faith-based groups.

“You effectively silence the voice of that minority group,” Ligon said. And that’s wrong.”

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