Campus preacher

Junior Lofton, a Christian preacher, talks to a group of pro-Israeli protesters and students. Lofton, 73, has been preaching to students for 32 years as of April 2014 and typically visits Turlington Plaza three days a week.

Alligator File Photo

Free speech on campus wouldn’t be restricted to the Plaza of the Americas and Turlington Plaza if a Florida Senate bill, which was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, is signed into law.

The committee approved the bill in a 7-4 vote. The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley (R- Ocala), would prevent public universities from restricting free speech to particular zones and hold the universities liable for up to $100,000 in damages if a student, faculty or staff member “willfully” disrupts another person’s free speech.

“This is to address a flourishing of the limitation of free speech,” Baxley said in the committee meeting. “Many of our universities are restricting free speech to free speech zones.”

UF is aware of the bill and involved in discussions about the final product, wrote UF spokesperson Margot Winick in an email.

“We are monitoring the bill and are working with the Board of Governors and other universities to help ensure it protects free speech while not putting universities at risk for unnecessary lawsuits,” Winick said.

The amended version of the bill that was approved by the committee differed slightly from the original draft. This version clarified that it is the public institution that will be held liable for a student, faculty or staff member that “materially disrupts” a free speech activity not the student, faculty or staff member who commits the violation.

Baxley said he also worked with public universities to clarify that violations had to be intentional in order to result in legal action.

“The focus of bringing this part into the bill is so there’s a clear line of authority for the university to be in charge, but at the same time we want to cushion that liability when it’s things that have nothing to do with their responsibility,” Baxley said.

Despite its intentions to expand free speech, some fear it will have the opposite effect.

In the committee meeting, Kara Gross, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, said holding universities liable for disruptions caused by faculty, staff or students could incentivize universities to try to silence them.

“This bill would chill speech as public institutions of higher education, in order to avoid being held liable, would be inclined to restrict speech and protests and peaceful assembly out of concern that someone might boo too loudly,” Gross said.

Contact Jessica Giles at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @jessica_giles_

Jessica Giles is a junior journalism major and Commission Reporter for The Alligator. Starting as a copyeditor in the Spring 2017, she now covers all city and county affairs. She'll never turn down a cup of coffee or the opportunity to pet a beagle.