Georgia Senate committee passes anti-LGBTQ ‘free speech’ bill

A Georgia Senate committee advanced a bill that bans “free speech zones” on college campuses despite the University System of Georgia’s objections that the measure could lead to discrimination.

State Sen. William Ligon (photo), a Republican from Brunswick, said Senate Bill 318 would ensure that all common areas on public college campuses are open to speakers, no matter how controversial they are. A leading LGBTQ advocate has said that a provision in the bill would create a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ students. 

The Senate Judiciary Committee debated the bill during a hearing on Feb. 27. The legislation needed a tie-breaking vote from Sen. Jesse Stone, the committee chair, in order to pass. It now moves to the Senate Rules Committee, which will decide if the full Senate will vote on it. 

The co-sponsors of SB 318 include state Sens. Butch Miller, Randy Robertson, Bill Heath, Bruce Thompson and Marty Harbin. They are all Republicans. A member of the anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom spoke in favor of the bill at a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on Feb. 19.

Brooke Bowen, senior legal counsel for the University System of Georgia, took issue with the bill during the committee hearing. The bill prevents public colleges from denying benefits or privileges to student organizations based on the “actual or anticipated expressive activity of the organization.”

“We believe that this language is too broad and could prohibit many of our institutions from prohibiting discrimination,” Bowen said during testimony at the meeting.

Ligon said he worked with Bowen and the University System of Georgia to address their concerns. 

“There were some agreements on some points, and on some points, there was no agreement,” he said. “But I am very appreciative of the way that we all worked together to try to reach a consensus on this.”

“This is where we are at this point,” he added.

Sen. Elena Parent, a Democrat from Atlanta, asked Bowen if USG would support the bill if all its requested changes were made. 

“We’d still say the bill isn’t needed,” Bowen said. 

There are 28 public colleges and universities in the USG system with over 325,000 students enrolled, according to its website.

Ligon has a long anti-LGBTQ track record in the state legislature. He sponsored an anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill in 2017. He also added an amendment to a 2017 bill that would allow faith-based adoption agencies to discriminate against LGBTQ people seeking adoptions. The amendment killed the bill

Ligon tried again in 2018 by introducing a bill that would allow faith-based agencies to ban LGBTQ couples from adopting. It passed in the Senate but never made it out of the House.

Ligon sponsored another anti-LGBTQ “religious freedom” bill in 2019, but it has failed to gain any traction. 

Harbin, a co-sponsor of Ligon's bill, filed his own legislation in early February that would allow adoption and foster care agencies in Georgia to refuse to place children with LGBTQ couples.