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Tennessee Law Is Hailed as Offering Unprecedented Protection of Campus Speech

A new Tennessee law prohibits public colleges from disinviting speakers based on their controversial viewpoints or from charging student groups higher security fees to host speakers expected to trigger unrest.

Among its other provisions, the measure, signed on Tuesday by Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, requires colleges to adopt broad protections of free expression consistent with a landmark statement adopted in 2015 by the University of Chicago. It also bars public colleges from limiting students’ speech to specific sections of a campus, denying funds to student groups based on their viewpoints, or punishing faculty members for classroom speech germane to the subjects they teach.

In addition, the measure requires public colleges to define student-on-student harassment narrowly, as conduct that is prohibited by federal, state, or local law and “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit advocacy group, advised Tennessee lawmakers on the bill, one of several measures to protect campus free speech taken up this year by state legislatures. In a statement issued by the group on Wednesday, Robert Shibley, its executive director, hailed the Tennessee measure as “the most comprehensive state legislation protecting free speech on college campuses that we’ve seen passed anywhere in the country.”

The Tennessee House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the bill last week, following the measure’s unanimous approval by the state’s Senate in April.

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