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Our Opinion: College campuses now a ‘safe space’ for free expression

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College students buying back-to-school gear can trade in their muzzles for a megaphone.

When the fall semester begins at North Carolina’s public universities later this month, a long-overdue state law protecting students’ free speech rights from campus censors will be in force. Scholars can express themselves without fear of disciplinary sanctions, which were unfortunately all-too common.

House Bill 527, An Act to Restore and Preserve Free Speech, took effect July 31. Gov. Roy Cooper allowed the vital reform to become law without his signature after swift passage by a veto-proof majority in the General Assembly.

The law prevents University of North Carolina System institutions from maintaining rules that encroach on First Amendment freedoms, rolls back the condescension of “free speech zones” that corralled demonstrations into small corners of campus and requires administrators to honor student groups’ invitations to all guest speakers regardless of their ideology.

HB 527 also stops compelled speech in its tracks, forbidding colleges from setting rules that “require students, faculty or administrators to publicly express a given view of social policy.” That means no more mandatory signing of diversity, tolerance and inclusion pledges.

These sweeping changes at UNC campuses are a victory for freedom of speech and individual liberty and they put North Carolina at the vanguard of a national backlash against a culture of coercive political correctness.

Liberals famously led the free speech movement in the 1960s, but this time, conservatives are in the driver’s seat. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a second-term Republican, showed impressive leadership in shepherding HB 527 through the legislature. Cooper, a Democrat, opted not to sign this important bill.

Critics say the new law could be used to crack down on student protests because it requires schools to impose penalties for activities that “infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity.”

Peaceful protests enjoy constitutional protection, but silencing a controversial speaker by drowning him out is mob rule. Opponents of HB 527 don’t seem to have a good grasp of First Amendment jurisprudence.

Tyler Coward of the nonpartisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes that “fleeting boos” are protected speech. Disruptions like the February riot that canceled conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos’ speech at the University of California-Berkeley, however, are not.

Cooper spokesman Ford Porter said lawmakers should trust college administrators to set speech policies. Been there, done that. Until this year, most North Carolina universities maintained unlawful rules.

HB 527 didn’t concoct a batch of brand-new rights. It simply instructs public colleges to abide by the First Amendment, which federal law already requires. The state law holds university administrators accountable for meeting constitutional standards they have flouted with impunity for far too long.

Campus free speech is now the law of the land in North Carolina. Students who hold controversial or unpopular views will no longer be frog-marched to the dean’s office merely for speaking their mind.

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