OPINION: New Bill Would Expand Free Speech at Public Colleges Statewide | Opinion


Recently, Georgia House Bill 1, known as the “Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act”, was passed by the State Senate. The newly signed legislation would eliminate the University of Georgia’s “free speech zones,” including areas of campus such as the Tate Plaza, designated as public forums. It would be replaced by a new system that would extend the right to free speech across campus.

Your first thought might be, “I already hate having to dodge visitors and students handing out brochures about their club, and now they can do it anywhere?” I won’t deny you that thought and I sympathize with you.

However, while lawyers at or near the Tate Zell B. Miller Learning Center may be infuriating, the new bill – which states that free expression is now welcome in any commonly accessible space on campus – is clearly a good thing. Any advance in the protection of freedom of expression is a step in the right direction.

Some students have other concerns. We have seen the exercise of free speech turn into attacks that invoke hateful rhetoric and conflict, both on and off campus.

I also sympathize with this point of view and agree that no one should be the victim of this kind of aggression. However, this is where we might miss the real purpose of free speech.

Verbal aggression is not what free speech is, and it is important to distinguish between the two. Going from freedom of expression to threats and incitement to fear is unacceptable.

UGA is ultimately responsible for protecting student safety. And while the new bill is expected to pass, it is an important consideration for UGA’s administration. If a free expression event escalates into a hateful demonstration, the mental and physical safety of students and others must be a priority.

While it’s unclear how UGA will handle potential issues with the bill, a UGA spokesperson said, “The university is legally required to prioritize both safety and to the First Amendment rights of our students, faculty, and staff at any on-campus event, and we take that responsibility seriously” in response to a dispute last November where students were antagonized by an evangelical group protesting with hate placards in the Tate Plaza.

If UGA improves how it handles hate speech and keeps its word, this bill has the potential to be a powerful boon for UGA and its student body.

Another benefit of the new bill is that it encourages face-to-face interaction even in a very screen-driven world, where it’s easy to forget that there’s another hugely effective platform for freedom of expression outside of social media. The new bill will promote this by expanding the realm of freedom of expression in person rather than limiting it.

This is especially true in a post-COVID world, where many facets of our lives that were once face-to-face are now online. A large number of people are now working or going to school entirely from home, with limited in-person interaction.

It’s often easy to overlook the importance of face-to-face interaction, despite any perceived “inconvenience” that comes with it. Many experts and studies find that face-to-face communication is absolutely necessary in certain situations and that face-to-face interaction is essential for mental and physical health, not to mention the effectiveness of face-to-face communication compared to to online communication. .

If you’ve ever attended a political rally, a TED talk, or anything in between, you know the power that words can have when spoken directly to you.

The in-person interaction is more visceral, more real, and has a far greater effect than the words scrolling across your iPhone.

With the new bill, UGA unlocks something that can potentially be great, not just for students but for people in general. If managed properly and if other campuses follow suit, we may all be able to rediscover a powerful communications platform.

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