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Alabama legislature passes campus free speech bill with bipartisan support in Senate

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate, in a resounding vote of 24-1, on Thursday passed as amended State Rep. Matt Fridy’s (R-Montevallo) HB 498, a bill intended to safeguard freedom of speech on college campuses in the Yellowhammer State.

This bill passed the House by a 73-26 vote last week when the legislation was met with staunch opposition and heated debate from that chamber’s Democrats. However, the only real drama in the Senate came outside the chamber, when Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) had to be ushered away from Fridy after the senator started berating and hurling expletives at the Republican from Shelby County.

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After that dust-up, Singleton ended up being the only “no” vote against the legislation. Perhaps seeing that the House Democrats’ remarks against the bill had been a bad look politically, four Senate Democrats voted “yes” while three were not present or chose not to vote.

State Sen. Billy Beasley (D-Clayton) even spoke in support of the legislation.

“I’ve always believed in freedom of speech in the United States and certainly in the state of Alabama. On college campuses – two-year and four-year colleges – everyone has a right to their freedom of expression,” Beasley stated. “There have been occasions since I have been in the Senate when I have voted with the majority party if I thought the issue was representative of the people in my district or in the best interest of the state of Alabama.”

The bipartisan vote came after State Sen. Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham) on the floor tacked on an amendment pushing the effective date of the legislation to July 1, 2020. This will give colleges and universities sufficient time before the legislation would go into effect, and the amendment means the legislature’s 2020 regular session will unfold before that effective date.

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) carried HB 498 on the Senate floor immediately after he successfully guided HB 380, the crucial Board of Pardons and Paroles reform bill, through the chamber.

After the Senate passed the amended version of the bill, the House (at Fridy’s request) concurred, sending HB 498 to Governor Kay Ivey’s desk.

‘Nothing is more important than safeguarding the First Amendment’

In a statement, Fridy explained the background behind the legislation, which is very likely to become law.

“Free speech is the cornerstone of our rights as American citizens — and those First Amendment rights certainly apply to college students on university campuses. Around the country, there have been chilling examples where administrators and professors have discriminated against students,” Fridy advised. “Often, pro-life groups and conservative political organizations are targeted. With this law, we are making it very clear that in Alabama, the First Amendment rights of all students, liberal or conservative, will be protected from unfair and discriminatory university speech policies.”

HB 498 would require taxpayer-funded, public colleges and universities in Alabama to adopt speech policies for their campuses that will protect the free and open exchange of ideas.

Specifically, the speech policies must make clear that the outdoor areas of a public college’s campus shall be deemed a public forum for members of the campus community. Institutions would have a window of 90 days after the law’s effective date to submit their policies to the governor and the legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) said the bill was a priority for the GOP Senate Caucus this session.

“Protecting free speech on college campuses is a top priority for Republicans in the State Senate, and I am glad we could get this important bill across the finish line,” Reed outlined. “What this bill does is protect the free exchange of ideas on the campuses of taxpayer-funded, public universities. Nothing is more important than safeguarding the First Amendment.”

Upon Ivey’s signature or HB 498 otherwise becoming law, Alabama would become one of at least seventeen states to pass legislation protecting free speech on collegiate campuses.

Senate Rules Chairman Jabo Waggoner (R-Vestavia Hills) praised Fridy for spearheading the effort to protect free speech on Alabama’s college campuses.

“As an advocate and co-sponsor of the campus free speech bill, I want to thank my Senate colleagues for their steadfast support of HB 498. We are committed to ensuring that freedom of speech is not just a slogan, but a reality that would be equally and fairly applied to all students on public college campuses,” Waggoner emphasized. “Allowing our students to listen to a variety of viewpoints, and without bureaucratic harassment, is long overdue. I also want to thank Representative Matt Fridy for his tireless efforts.”

The bill stipulates that colleges may not establish so-called “free speech zones,” which are small areas on college quads to which students are confined if engaging in speech activity that administrators deem to be hateful or offensive.

“The problem with free speech zones is they are often used to limit the speech rights of religious and politically conservative student groups,” Fridy explained. “So, if you want to hand out pocket copies of the Constitution or the New Testament, some universities have started to say, ‘Nope, you can only do that if you stand over here, in this ten-by-ten-foot square.’ And we’ve seen liberal groups targeted by speech zones, as well.”

HB 498 also would ensure that if hecklers choose to protest and intimidate an invited guest speaker on a public collegiate campus, the institution could not capitulate to the hecklers by forcing the speaker to pay for security costs that have arisen from the protest.

“Protecting free speech is especially important now, when so many on the political left on college campuses are using unfair speech codes to intimidate those with whom they disagree. But ultimately, this bill is meant to protect speech across the political spectrum, because the First Amendment is a right we have as Americans, regardless of our political beliefs. I am very happy that we had bipartisan support for this legislation,” Fridy concluded.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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