NEW ORLEANS — The Louisiana House recently passed a free speech bill over concerns that controversial guests wouldn’t be allowed to speak at the state's public university campuses.
The bill, which calls for neutrality regarding the freedom of expression and views on campuses, passed the Louisiana House on May 24 by vote of 66 to 29. The bill had previously been defeated.
Louisiana state Rep. Lance Harris (R-Alexandria) proposed the bill. He used a canceled visit to the University of California, Berkeley by Ann Coulter, a controversial conservative political commentator, to reason that Louisiana's public universities should have a free speech policy.
“[This] law orders state schools to create rules and regulations to enforce and protect the First Amendment,” William Quigley, law professor and director of the law clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola University New Orleans, told the Louisiana Record. “[It] allows the attorney general or others to sue for damages or injunctions against students or others who they allege violated the First Amendment.”
State Rep. Patricia Smith (D-Baton Rouge) had questioned the bill’s necessity, pointing to a September 2016 event at Louisiana State University that featured Milo Yiannopoulos, a controversial British media personality. The event reportedly went off without a hitch.
Harris said he fashioned the bill after Arizona’s law that prohibits the state's public school campuses from controlling free speech. The bill also calls for a panel committee to monitor and “report annually on controversies or barriers to free speech,” according to a report by the the Times-Picayune.
College students reportedly have called Harris' office expressing concern about their First Amendment rights on campus, Harris said.
“I am sure this is a well-intended bill to protect the important value of freedom of speech,” Quigley said. “However, this bill is a solution to a non-existent problem. The First Amendment to the Constitution already protects freedom of speech on public school campuses.”
After the bill's initial defeat, Democrats asked Harris to work with colleges to fashion the bill’s contents. They said schools should help develop policy before it reaches the floor because the bill gave colleges regulating abilities on students' free speech. Harris agreed to reach out, but it’s not clear if he did.
“Adding another seven pages of mandates, rules and regulations to the First Amendment could well cause unintended problems for free speech,” Quigley said. “It is likely that some of these rules and regulations may, though well intended, themselves violate the First Amendment, which prohibits regulations on freedom of speech.”