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Tennessee Free Speech Bill Signed Into Law

May 11, 2017
 
 

A free speech bill backed by state Republican lawmakers in Tennessee became law there this week. It is separate legislation from what was previously dubbed the “Milo bill,” after fallen Breitbart star Milo Yiannopoulos, whose February appearance at the University of California at Berkeley sparked violent protests from non-students. The news law says that it “is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”

Tennessee lawmakers regularly oppose the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s annual Sex Week and earlier this academic year opposed a guide from the university's diversity office encouraging the use of gender-neutral pronouns for students who request them. But Anthony Haynes, vice president for government relations and advocacy for the University of Tennessee System, praised the new law and said it had been drafted by with the input and support of colleges and universitites. “The campus free-speech act that just passed in Tennessee clarifies and protects free speech on college campuses as provided by the First Amendment, but it appears to be the first state law in the country to protect academic freedom in the classroom," he said in a statement. "It was a fresh perspective developed independently as a Tennessee solution to a growing national debate and concern."

Similar bills have proved controversial in other states this year over concerns that they go too far in demanding certain administrative responses to free-speech flaps. Tennessee’s new law requires that institutions adopt policies consistent with the University of Chicago’s statement on free expression, prohibit “free speech zones” that confine protests and other forms of expression to certain areas on campus, and define student-on-student harassment by a legal standard described as so “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it limits one party’s access to education. It also bans institutions from revoking invitations to speakers, prohibits the denial of student fees to student organization based on their views, and protects faculty members from being punished for classroom speech that is germane to the subject matter, according to an analysis by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Robert Shibley, FIRE's director, in a statement called it “the most comprehensive state legislation protecting free speech on college campuses that we’ve seen be passed anywhere in the country.” (Note: This story has been updated to correct an earlier error conflating it with the 'Milo bill,' and to include a statement from the university.)

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