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Campus ‘Free Speech’ Bill Struck Down by Louisiana Governor

BATON ROUGE, La. — A proposal aimed at protecting controversial speakers’ appearances at Louisiana colleges and calling on campuses to penalize students who disrupt them has been vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards, who described the bill as a “solution in search of a problem.”

In a veto letter released Tuesday, the Democratic governor wrote that the bill sponsored by House Republicans’ leader Lance Harris was “unnecessary and overly burdensome to our colleges and universities as the freedoms this bill attempts to protect are already well-established by the bedrock principles declared in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution” and in Louisiana’s state constitution.

Harris, an Alexandria lawmaker who chairs the House Republican Delegation, said his bill was a response to university decisions around the country to shut down appearances from speakers amid demonstrations and threats of violence. He’s cited the decision by officials at the University of California, Berkeley, to cancel a speech by conservative commentator Ann Coulter.

“Freedom of speech is under siege on college campuses around the country,” Harris said Tuesday.

Describing himself as disappointed, Harris said he had heard “absolutely zero” concerns from the governor’s office as the bill moved through the Legislature.

Harris’ bill called on colleges to establish sanctions for students who interfere with “the free expression of others.” It would have required colleges to adopt a statement saying they strive for free expression on campuses, won’t shield students from unwelcome or offensive speech, and will permit protests and demonstrations. Louisiana’s Board of Regents would have had to create a “committee on free expression” to report annually on any controversies.

During debate, opponents questioned if the legislation’s provisions were too far-reaching. But provisions establishing mandatory penalties and allowing campuses to be sued were stripped in the Senate, seemingly ending any opposition. Instead, campuses would have been able to decide any punishments when students were deemed to be inhibiting free speech. The bill, which initially took two votes to win House support with the tougher punishment provisions, received little opposition in its final form sent to the governor.

Still, Edwards said the legislation was “overly complicated and would only frustrate the goals it purports to achieve.”

“The protection of speech has survived and flourished in the 226 years since the adoption of the First Amendment, and it will continue to do so without (Harris’ bill) becoming the law of Louisiana,” the governor wrote.

Harris said he’ll bring back the proposal in another legislative session.

“I’m going to be looking at different versions. I hope I can visit with the governor and see what he didn’t like about this one,” Harris said. “I think it’s critically important that Louisiana be proactive on this issue.”

Republicans in several states have proposed similar legislation. Harris said his proposal was modeled after an Arizona law passed in 2016.
Edwards has jettisoned seven bills passed by state lawmakers in the just-ended legislative sessions, along with stripping some provisions from the budget with his line-item veto authority. The governor is expected to complete action on all remaining legislation this week.

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