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Campus free speech bill goes into effect July 1, no action required until 2021

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A state law regarding free speech at public colleges and universities goes into effect July 1, but doesn’t require any action by schools until early 2021.

And some changes to the law could be coming.

During the 2019 legislative session, Rep. Matt Fridy, R-Montevallo, sponsored the bill in response to a national trend of college political demonstrations and protests to block some speakers from campuses.

The law requires schools to adopt policies that acknowledge, among other things, that “the campus of the public institution of higher education shall be open to any speaker whom the institution’s student organizations or faculty have invited, and the institution will make all reasonable efforts to make available all reasonable resources to ensure the safety. The law also says institutions won’t create “free speech zones” or other designated outdoor areas of campus in order to limit or prohibit protected expressive activities.

Fridy’s bill as originally written would have made the law effective in 2019. But an amendment in the final days of the session from Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, changed that to July 1, 2020. Lawmakers’ intention was to not require any reporting by universities until 2021, Fridy told Alabama Daily News on Tuesday. However, other dates in the bill were not altered as it became law to reflect the extended timeframe.

Some of the dates were corrected and put out one year when the law was codified, but a September 2020 reporting date is now listed in the Alabama Code.

Universities and the Alabama Commission on Higher Education have been told that the law doesn’t require anything of them until 2021, including updated written free speech policies in January.

“I told ACHE that it would be my interpretation that the first report wouldn’t be due until September 2021,” said Othni Lathram, director of the Legislative Services Agency, the body that provides legal, fiscal and code revision assistance to lawmakers.

“The bottom line is, sometimes those on-the-fly amendments require clean up in codification,” Lathram said.

Fridy said the 2021 date was meant to give universities time to work on their policies, and make changes in the 2020 legislative session if needed. Fridy said he’d been working with some university representatives to make some changes to the law this year, but the response to COVID-19 drastically shortened the spring lawmaking session and killed most legislation.

“If we come back in a special, that’s something that I would hope would be part of the call,” Fridy said.

Gov. Kay Ivey has not definitively said she’ll call lawmakers back for a special session this year, but is expected to in order to address a variety of issues left unresolved by the shortened spring session.

The law also says institutions will adopt a range of disciplinary sanctions for anyone under its jurisdiction who materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others.

Starting in September of 2021, institutions will have to file an annual report that describes each violation of their adopted policy and the administrative handling and discipline related to each violation.

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