Critics knock new Georgia ‘free speech’ bill as anti-LGBTQ

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A state lawmaker from Fayetteville proposed a bill that critics said could be used as a “sword for discrimination” against LGBTQ students in Georgia.

State Rep. Josh Bonner, a Republican, filed the Forming Open & Robust University Minds Act on Nov. 16 – some two months before the Georgia General Assembly starts a new session. House Bill 1 would ensure that all common areas on public college campuses are open to speakers and would eliminate speech codes in Georgia’s laws, according to Bonner.

“Free speech is a non-partisan issue,” Bonner said in a press release. “Our public universities are meant to be safe forums where ideas could be debated, but over the years, the ability of students to exercise their First Amendment rights has been greatly diminished.”

“The FORUM Act would help protect and clarify those rights and hold our government accountable if they are suppressed. By implementing constitutional standards on free expression, schools can minimize the risk of costly litigation and create an environment where free speech and academic inquiry can thrive,” he added.

Bonner introduced the bill after learning of incidents on two college campuses in Georgia. One involved a Georgia Gwinnett College student alleging that the school prohibited him from sharing leaflets about his Christian faith on campus in 2016. He sued in federal court, but the case was dismissed after the school made changes to its campus policies, according to the AJC. The U.S. Supreme Court will now hear the case.

Anti-LGBTQ legal group Alliance Defending Freedom represents the student.

The other incident involved Georgia Tech’s student government. It denied funding for an on-campus appearance by anti-LGBTQ speaker Alveda King. A pro-life student group sued in April, and Georgia Tech agreed to settle the case in September. Georgia Tech agreed to pay $50,000 to the student group’s attorneys —again, ADF — and it revised its policy to allow funds to go to student groups based on “viewpoint-neutral decision-making criteria.”

Bonner introduced a bill similar to HB 1 during the legislative session that ended earlier this year. It never made it to committee. A companion bill passed in the Senate but gained no traction in the House.

Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (photo by Patrick Saunders)

Georgia Equality, ACLU to fight bill

A provision in Bonner’s new bill – similar to one in his previous proposal – is causing concern. The provision prevents public colleges from denying benefits or privileges to religious, political or ideological student organizations based on the “actual or anticipated expressive activity of the organization,” according to the legislation.

That’s an attempt to circumvent a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said schools can refuse funding to student groups engaged in discriminatory conduct, according to Georgia Equality Executive Director Jeff Graham (second photo). The case concerned a Christian student group that barred gay students from leadership positions.

“Because Georgia does not have those same strong nondiscrimination protections, it is a theoretical argument at this time,” Graham told Project Q Atlanta. “But we do feel that religious student groups shouldn’t be able to discriminate against anyone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity or any other characteristics.”

The ACLU of Georgia led a coalition of groups, including Georgia Equality, to remove discriminatory language in legislation similar to Bonner’s earlier this year. They’ll do so again with HB 1 in 2021.

“The FORUM Act would have a chilling effect on the important protections Georgia’s public colleges and universities have to bar discrimination,” said Christopher Bruce, political director of the ACLU of Georgia. “The American ideals of free speech must not be used as a sword for discrimination.”

Both Georgia Equality and the ACLU of Georgia said they supported parts of the legislation.

“But the devil is in the details,” Graham said.

No co-sponsors have signed on to Bonner’s bill yet.

The state legislature opens its 2021 session on Jan. 11 with a record seven LGBTQ lawmakers.

LGBTQ priest wins historic race for Georgia Senate

This story is made possible by a grant from Google News Initiative’s Journalism Emergency Relief Fund.

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