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Senate panel rejects ban on 'free speech zones'

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A bill that would ban “free-speech zones” on college campuses and allow state universities and colleges to be sued if students or others disrupt campus speakers was rejected Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The 6-4 vote against the measure (SB 1234), sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, likely spells the end to the legislation for the 2018 session.

Baxley called it a defeat for “free speech.”

“There’s a portion of the left end of this spectrum that they absolutely are opposed to free speech,” Baxley said, after more than a dozen college students testified against the bill or registered their opposition. “They don’t want you to say anything if you disagree with them.”

Under the legislation, public universities and colleges would be prohibited from establishing free-speech zones on their campuses. The bill also would prohibit students, faculty or staff from causing “a material and substantial disruption” of a previously scheduled event or activity on campus.

The bill would allow universities and colleges to be sued for injunctive relief and reasonable court costs and attorney fees if students or others disrupt campus speakers or other public activities.

Seeking to mollify the bill’s critics, Baxley offered an amendment Tuesday that removed the provision allowing universities and colleges to be sued for up to $100,000 in damages as well as attorney fees and court costs.

The amendment also tightened the definition of disruptive behavior that would lead to a violation, defining it as “conduct that intentionally and significantly hinders another person’s or group’s express rights.”

It also noted that the prohibition would not include any conduct protected under the First Amendment, including lawful protests and counter-protests.

But the bill was opposed by the student activists, the United Faculty of Florida and the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.

“This bill will result in chilling speech on college campuses,” said Kara Gross, representing the ACLU. She said the threat of a lawsuit would cause universities and colleges to limit campus activities.

Sen. Perry Thurston, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat who was one of the senators voting against the bill, said he agreed with the students and other opponents of the bill.

“They do not feel this is necessary for freedom of speech on their campuses,” he said.