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Republican-backed campus free speech bill stalls in N.C. House committee, for now

Lt. Gov. Dan Forest

[Note: This story has been updated] A Republican-shepherded bill aimed at curtailing UNC campus protests of conservative speakers hit some snags in the state House Wednesday.

When voting wrapped, members of the House Education Committee on Universities were deadlocked in a 6-6 tie on partisan lines over House Bill 527, legislation backed by influential Republicans such as Lt. Gov. Dan Forest.

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.”

It also opens a new pathway for lawsuits against universities and creates a so-called Committee on Free Expression appointed by the UNC Board of Governors, which would prepare annual reports for the state.

A tie vote means the motion fails, but the bill will remain in committee where it could be brought for another vote in the coming days. Of course, with the legislature’s April 27 crossover deadline approaching, the vote will have to take place quickly.

Meanwhile, a companion version of the bill in the state Senate is currently assigned to a clogged Rules & Operations Committee, with no clear schedule for when it will be debated.

Still, the legislation has emerged as a rallying point for conservatives like Forest who say conservative speeches have been stifled by protesters on UNC campuses.

House Democrats on Wednesday found a surprising ally in UNC Senior Vice President and General Counsel Tom Shanahan, who represents the Republican-controlled UNC Board of Governors and UNC System President Margaret Spellings.

Shanahan told lawmakers the university does not believe the legislation is necessary, later agreeing with suggestions that it may “dampen” free speech on campuses.

“Our staff on our campuses work with students every day to help them be able to protest, get their thoughts out and debate,” said Shanahan.

Wednesday’s vote failed despite arguments from GOP lawmakers that the campus free speech bill would not have a “chilling” effect on free speech for university professors and students.

“The legislation is extremely straight forward in its intent to preserve and restore free speech,” said Rep. Chris Millis, R-Onslow, Pender, a co-sponsor of the House bill.

Committee Democrats, however, suggested the bill was simply not necessary, asking for specific examples of individuals denied First Amendment rights on UNC campuses.

ACLU-N.C. Policy Counsel Susanna Birdsong

Likewise, the GOP bill found a chilly reception with the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Susanna Birdsong, policy counsel for the organization, said the legislation includes “overly broad” language when free speech bills should be “carefully crafted, clear and precise.”

“It risks chilling a range of first amendment activity it purports to protect,” said Birdsong.

However, the bill had the support of conservative advocates such as Americans for Prosperity. Anna Beavon Gravely, deputy state director for the organization’s N.C. chapter, said universities should be bastions of free expression.

“Unfortunately so many of our colleges and universities do not foster that type of environment,” she said.

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