ATLANTA – Supporters say the first legislation pre-filed in advance of the 2021 General Assembly session would strike a blow for free speech on Georgia college campuses.

Capitol Beat News Service
This story also appeared in Capitol Beat News Service

But opponents say the “Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act” could lead to discrimination.

House Bill 1, pre-filed on Monday by Georgia Rep. Josh Bonner, R-Fayetteville, reintroduces a bill the state Senate’s Republican majority passed last March 32-21 along party lines. The legislation cleared a committee in the House of Representatives but failed to get a floor vote during the final hectic week of the 2020 General Assembly session in June.

The FORUM Act would bar the practice of establishing “speech zones” effectively limiting where student groups could convene on campuses. It also would eliminate speech codes in state law by protecting what students can say and protect students’ right to free association for the expression of ideas.  

“Our public universities are meant to be safe forums where ideas could be debated, but over the years, the ability of students to exercise their First Amendment rights has been greatly diminished,” Bonner said Monday. “The FORUM Act would help protect and clarify those rights and hold our government accountable if they are suppressed.

“By implementing constitutional standards on free expression, schools can minimize the risk of costly litigation and create an environment where free speech and academic inquiry can thrive.”

Bonner cited specific complaints that prompted him to introduce the bill.

In 2016, Georgia Gwinnett College officials reportedly stopped a student from sharing his Christian faith with other students on his college campus, Bonner said.

Georgia Tech’s student government reportedly denied funding for a Students for Life speaking event featuring Alveda King, the niece of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., because her appearance would have been “inherently religious,” Bonner said.

Several Democratic senators objected to this year’s bill during the floor debate over concerns it could prevent colleges from barring organizations that promote race and gender discrimination. They also worried such broad speech protections could attract hate groups to Georgia campuses.

The Senate bill also drew opposition from representatives of the University System of Georgia and the American Civil Liberties Union.

This story comes through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.

Dave Williams is bureau chief for Capitol Beat News Service, a service of the Georgia Press Education Foundation.