A proposal calling on Louisiana's public colleges to punish students who disrupt free speech on campus narrowly failed to win the support Thursday of House lawmakers.
Alexandria Rep. Lance Harris, chairman of the House Republican Delegation, said his bill is aimed at protecting free expression on college campuses. He said the measure comes in response to university decisions to scrap appearances from controversial speakers. He cited Berkeley's canceling of conservative commentator Ann Coulter's on-campus speech.
Republicans in several states have proposed similar legislation.
College students should be exposed to ideas with which they don't necessarily agree and hear differing opinions, Harris said.
"Freedom of speech is a cornerstone of our liberty," Harris said. "Unfortunately today, freedom of speech seems to be increasingly imperiled in society at large."
Harris' proposal would require colleges to adopt a statement saying they strive for free expression on campuses, won't shield students from unwelcome or offensive speech and permit protests and demonstrations.
Colleges would have to establish disciplinary sanctions for students who interfere with "the free expression of others." And campuses could be sued if someone feels First Amendment rights have been restricted. If a lawsuit is successful, the campuses could owe court and attorney fees and an award of at least $1,000.
Louisiana's Board of Regents would have to create a 15-member "committee on free expression" to report annually on controversies or barriers to free speech that the panel finds.
Opponents questioned whether the bill was needed and if its provisions were too far-reaching.
"I just don't know what's wrong with the First Amendment that needs fixing," said Rep. Sam Jones, a Franklin Democrat.
Harris said demonstrations and threats of violence have shut down speakers across the country, and his proposal was aimed at creating guidelines to combat that.
"This is a problem across the nation," he said.
Rep. Rob Shadoin, a Ruston Republican, said he worried about allowing a new legal cause of action against colleges. Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge Democrat, said he worried about protecting one group of students' rights while infringing on another group's rights.
"Some students are expressing their free speech by protesting what other people want to speak about," James said.
The House voted 46-34 Thursday for the bill. It needed 53 votes to pass. Harris could bring the proposal back for another vote. Several lawmakers were absent during the vote, which could shift the outcome on a second vote.
Harris said his proposal is modeled after an Arizona law passed in 2016.
House Bill 269: www.legis.la.gov
House vote: http://bit.ly/2qwVltY