House Bill 527, which passed its House second reading 88-32, would require the Board of Governors of the University of North Carolina system to establish a committee on free expression.
N.C. Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange, said the bill will go to the Senate, where it might be altered.
Insko said she opposed the bill, which she called unnecessary, because it would regulate free speech.
“I see university campuses as places where we ought to be learning about what free speech is, and in order to do that, sometimes you get it wrong, and you learn from experience,” she said.
N.C. Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, said in an email he sponsored the bill to provide consistency and protection of First Amendment rights.
Jordan said he thinks it is sad anytime the free speech rights of others are infringed upon.
“However, peaceful protests, such as the ones I experienced in my time at UNC, are not only encouraged in my opinion, but part of the dialogue that makes our country so unique,” he said.
This bill comes in the wake of students protesting a number of high-profile conservative speakers on campuses — including protests that turned violent at the University of California-Berkeley.
“Protests across the country, that have crossed from a challenge of ideas to those that create an environment of safety concerns, are definitely an issue,” Jordan said. “This is something that advocates for free speech, on both sides of the aisle, are concerned with.”
Bill Marshall, a UNC law professor, said protests are the heart of free speech — but that there are limits to a protest.
“Protests cannot be violent,” he said. “You can restrict speech if it becomes violent.”
The right of protesters to protest is included in the right of speakers to speak, Marshall said.
“Anything that does not take both sides into account can run into serious First Amendment problems,” he said.
Students should be open to hearing ideas they do not like, Marshall said.
“I think that it’s perfectly acceptable for controversial speakers to come on campus and give a speech, and I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to protest that speech,” he said.
Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said he thinks it’s a good idea that the legislature consider how to promote students’ ability to both protest and counter-protest.
The intent of the bill is not to stifle speech, Cohn said.
“I prefer students to be engaged in controversial issues and making their voices known as opposed to being apathetic and silent. But specifically trying to stifle someone else’s speech is not a good thing,” he said.
Cohn said the organization is going to work with the state legislature to make sure the bill strikes a balance between students who are peacefully protesting and the people who have arranged the scheduled events to begin with.
“I think schools can get rid of their speech codes upfront to make sure that all lawful means of speech can flourish on their campuses,” Cohn said. “And legislatures can make them do it, if they won’t do it voluntarily, through carefully crafted legislation.”