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Legislation proposes heftier fines for disrupting public speakers

Sen. Dennis Baxley proposes 'Free Speech on Campus' legislation

A crowd of protesters ahead of white nationalist Richard Spencer's speaking engagement at the University of Florida
A crowd of protesters ahead of white nationalist Richard Spencer's speaking engagement at the University of Florida

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Under legislation being heard at the Capitol on Tuesday, universities, faculty, students or staff members who interrupt a scheduled speaker could be found liable for up to $100,000 in damages.

While the minimum fine is $500, multiple violations could cost a maximum of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Lawsuits must be filed within one year of a speaker's speech being disrupted.

Protesters of any kind wouldn’t be stuck in free speech zones on college campuses under legislation pending at the state Capitol.

"The very fact that you would be relegated to a free speeches zone tells you you don’t have free speech,” Sen. Dennis Baxley said.

Baxley proposed the “Free Speech on Campus” legislation after white supremacist Richard Spencer was shouted down at the University of Florida last October.

‘We’ve got to get away from this idea that none of us can hear something that we object to,” Baxley said.

In addition to outlawing free speech zones, the legislation allows a court to imposes a minimum $500 civil fine for university students, faculty or staff for disrupting a previously scheduled activity.

"We’ve got to learn to debate ideas rather than just yelling and screaming,” Baxley said.

A Brookings Institute study found that among college students, 51 percent think it's OK to shout down someone with whom they disagree.

“I think most college students, like, actually understand the First

Amendment," Florida State University student Sarafina Cruz said. "They might just let their emotions get the best of them."

The legislation gets its first hearing in the House on Tuesday. No hearings are scheduled in the Senate.

While passage is a long shot, just hearing the bill is expected to send a message to university administrators that all speech is to be protected.