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N.C. lawmakers to take up GOP-championed campus free speech bill

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

A conservative-championed campus free speech bill will get its first substantial debate in the N.C. General Assembly this week.

Members of a House education committee are scheduled to consider House Bill 527 Wednesday afternoon, draft legislation pushed by Republicans in recent years to curtail demonstrations against conservative speeches on college campuses.

The bill requires neutrality from UNC universities and, notably, prohibits campus protests that, according to the draft, “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in or listen to expressive activity.”

The GOP-sponsored bill comes at the behest of Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who announced his intentions to urge such reforms this February.  Such legislation has the backing of right-wing pundits who say conservative speakers have been harassed on generally left-leaning college campus, but it’s likely to earn the scrutiny of groups like the ACLU.

Anyone who feels as if their rights are violated would have the right to sue the university for damages and court costs under the GOP bill.

The GOP legislation also creates a so-called Committee on Free Expression, which would include 11 members of the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors. That committee would prepare annual reports detailing:

A description of any barriers to or disruptions of free expression within the constituent institutions.

A description of the administrative handling and discipline relating to these disruptions or barriers.

A description of substantial difficulties, controversies, or successes in maintaining a posture of administrative and institutional neutrality with regard to political or social issues.

Any assessments, criticisms, commendations, or recommendations the Committee sees fit to include.

Furthermore, campus orientation would be required to include a lesson on campus free speech as well.

Officials with the ACLU of N.C. told Policy Watch they are tracking the legislation closely.

“The constitutional right to free expression and assembly is fundamental to our democracy,” ACLU-N.C. Policy Director Sarah Gillooly said in a statement Wednesday. “Proposals to enshrine those rights into state law must be clear and precise. We look forward to discussing the bill with lawmakers in the days to come.”

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