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Louisiana Advances Policy to Restrict Campus Protests

The state House Education Committee unanimously approved a measure on Tuesday that would bar protests by any organization funded by a foreign adversary. It would also prohibit professors from imposing their political views on students.

Louisiana lawmakers advanced a bill they said is aimed at restricting violent protests on college campuses but which students and university leaders argued would stifle free speech.

The House Education Committee on Tuesday, May 14, unanimously approved the measure, Senate Bill 294. The bill, which already passed in the Senate along party lines, now goes to the full House for a vote.

The proposed restrictions on campus political activity come as police have arrested nearly 3,000 people during pro-Palestinian protests at universities across the United States in recent weeks, sometimes using riot gear, tactical vehicles and flash-bang devices to clear tent encampments and occupied buildings. In Louisiana, police in riot gear forced a pro-Palestinian encampment at Tulane University off the campus earlier this month, arresting 14 people.

Sen. Valarie Hodges, R- Denham Springs, the bill's author, argued in Tuesday's committee meeting it would "shore up protections" for students on college campuses. But critics said the bill places restrictions on free speech and appears to treat protestors differently depending on their political views.

The bill proposes several changes to current law. It would bar protests by any organization funded by a foreign adversary and prohibit professors from imposing their political views on students, while also aiming to protect students' and organizations' political, ideological and religious beliefs.

"This bill protects free speech for everyone but makes it very clear that criminal activity and pro-terrorist, giving support to terrorist groups, does not belong on our college campuses," Hodges said during the committee hearing.

But college and university students and faculty spoke out against the bill, arguing it would have a chilling effect because its language is ambiguous.

"Criminalizing free speech is not the answer," Loyola University assistant professor Pablo Zavala said during the hearing. "Just because someone does not agree with what students are saying or what they are protesting does not give lawmakers authority to curb their rights."

Hodges said she wrote the bill before the pro-Palestinian demonstrations on college campuses began to increase in frequency and size. She first called the demonstrations "riots" before referring to them as "protests."

"We want to make sure our college campuses are places of academic learning and where our children feel safe to go," she said.

The bill proposes a list of changes to existing law:

— It would bar demonstrations by groups "funded or organized" by foreign terrorist organizations.

— It would not protect a student's free speech right if there is "any criminal activity."

— It would prohibit colleges and universities from discriminating based on "political, ideological or religious beliefs" and require institutions make "reasonable efforts" to protect students from such discrimination.

— Universities and colleges would not be able to restrict an organization's beliefs or require it to accept leaders of other religions if it would violate the organization's standards of conduct.

— Students would be allowed to have an attorney at a disciplinary hearing at the student's expense.

— It would prohibit a professor or instructor from "imposing" their political views on students by requiring them to attend a political protest or engage in political activity outside the classroom that aligns with the professor's politics.

— It would require colleges and universities to post "that the institution's policy is to be free from political duress to attend off-campus political activities."

During the House Education Committee, lawmakers pushed back against testimony that said protests were mostly peaceful until universities and colleges allowed law enforcement to interact with demonstrators. Rep. Beryl Amedée said they "obviously are not watching the same news broadcasts."

"This bill does not threaten free speech," she said. "What this bill does is it protects against violent protest, against criminal activity."

A majority of the student demonstrations — about 97 percent — have remained peaceful, according to a study by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a nonprofit that tracks and analyzes reported political violence and protests.

Some of those testifying against the bill argued that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, such as Rosa Parks, broke the law despite their peaceful protests.

"In spite of its stated intentions, this legislation does little to actually protect political speech," Jack Reno Sweeney, a New Orleans resident, said during the committee hearing. "This bill essentially is a solution in search of a problem."

There were 11 people at the hearing who supported the bill but did not speak, 10 people who spoke against the bill and three who were opposed but did not speak.

(c)2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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