State legislature seeks to update free speech, harassment, raffle policies

The Louisiana State Legislature began its regular session March 12. Aside from the Max Gruver Act and uncertainty of higher education and Taylor Opportunity Program for Students funding, three bills introduced to the floor in April could affect college students should they pass in both the House and Senate.

Senate Bill 364 by Sen. Rick Ward, III, R-Port Allen, passed 33-0; House Bill 261 by Rep. Joseph Marino, III, I-Gretna, passed 99-0; and Senate Bill 559 by Sen. Dan W. Morrish, R-Jennings, passed 21-13.

 

 

SB 364 protects the right of students, faculty and others expressing free speech on campuses “as long as the person’s conduct is not unlawful and does not … disrupt the functioning of the institution.”

It states that the prime function of universities and colleges is ultimately the pursuit of knowledge, and “in order to fulfill the function, each institution must strive to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.”

The bill, now under House revision, obligates Louisiana universities to create policies that are consistent with SB 364 and make those policies accessible in handbooks and online. It also requires public institutions to submit a report to the legislature on the application of the policies starting Jan. 1, 2019.

Demons Supports Demons President Ashlyn Guidry said she thinks the bill could be helpful for universities but specifically for organizations that exercise their right to demonstrate multiple times throughout the year.

“I view it both ways … I wish that universities could make their own policies [and] that they wouldn’t need law to enforce certain policies,” Guidry said. “[But] I think it’s good that everyone would be held to the same level.”

Northwestern State University changed its own Policy on Public Speech, Assembly and Demonstration in 2016 after facing backlash from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE changed NSU’s Speech Code Rating – an assessment of “the degree to which free speech is curtailed” – from red to yellow following the policy change. There are currently no green-rated universities in Louisiana.

“We’ve never had too many problems because we’ve worked within the policies we do have,” Guidry said.

 

 

HB 261 prohibits calls, text messages or other communications using “obscene, profane, vulgar, lewd, or lascivious language” to threaten or harass another person. This revises language used in the previous law to include text messages as a form of harassment.

“It’s a good step in the right direction,” Guidry said. “I think these laws are so behind, though.”

Guidry brought up that calls and texts are no longer the only way people can harass others, and social media can be used in the same way.

While HB 261 includes “any telecommunications device” or “any other similar device that is designed to engage in a call or communicate text or data,” it is unclear whether social media interactions fall under the scope of the bill.

 

 

SB 559 additionally passed through the Senate and will be considered by the House of Representatives. If it becomes law, universities and colleges would be allowed to conduct raffles without having to obtain a special license and “without having to qualify with the IRS for a federal income tax exemption.”

In an article circulated in the University of Louisiana System newsletter, Sen. Gerald Long, R-Winnfield, objected to the bill based on his view that institutions already hold raffles, to which Morrish responded that those raffles have been possibly unauthorized and illegal.

Jordan Reich

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