LSU

The Advocate file photo

Gov. John Bel Edwards has signed a bill aimed at ensuring free speech on college campuses, one year after he vetoed similar legislation sponsored by one of his top political foes.

Senate Bill 364, now Act 666, is designed to avoid incidents like those in other states, where campus speakers have been shouted down, sparked violence or both.

The new law requires colleges and universities to spell out free speech rights, publicize those rights in student handbooks and on school websites and make clear that students cannot expect colleges to shield them from opinions that they find offensive or disagreeable.

The legislation signed by Edwards was sponsored by Sen. Rick Ward III, R-Port Allen.

The measure the Democratic governor vetoed in June 2017 was sponsored by House GOP Caucus Chairman Lance Harris, R-Alexandria and one of Edwards' chief opponents in ongoing efforts to tackle Louisiana's $648 million shortfall.

In last year's veto message, Edwards said Harris's House Bill 269 "is a solution in search of a problem," an echo of criticism of the bill that students already have ample First Amendment protections.

The governor also criticized a provision in Harris' bill that would have set up a 15-member commission to oversee the rules, which was not in Ward's bill.

Ward said he did not set out to write a bill that differed with the Harris legislation, which he voted for.

He said his measure was based on U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the issue.

"Once it is written that way then it is pretty certain that you are not going to have any fear of any constitutional issues going forward," said Ward, who is an attorney.

Asked why the two measures met different fates Shauna Sanford, communications director for the governor's office said in an email: "These are two very different bills that seek very different outcomes."

"Under the bill by Sen. Rick Ward, colleges are limited in putting restrictions on when and where students can gather to express their right to free speech," she said. "The bill by Rep. Harris, HB269, would have placed sanctions on students who interfered with other students expressing their constitutional right."

"As Gov. Edwards pointed out in his veto letter of HB269, it was unnecessary and created an overly burdensome structure for the evaluation of the freedom of speech on college campuses, which is already protected in the bedrock principles declared in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution."

Harris did not return a call for comment. Last year Harris said his bill stemmed in part from the disruption of conservative speakers at the University of California at Berkeley and other schools.

While no major incidents have surfaced in Louisiana, Ward said and Harris has said in the past that they have heard from students and others who said their free speech rights were threatened.

"You had some things that were a little alarming, that would make you think it could lead to some bad actions in the future," Ward said.

"I think sometimes the best way to address things is to try to head them off before something bad does happen," he said. "I hope this does that."

Ward said that, during a committee hearing on the bill, someone testified that he was told to stop distributing pocket copies of the U.S. Constitution on a campus in Louisiana.

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, an attorney, said he and Ward worked hard to ensure the bill was legally sound.

Stefanski said he did not know why his bill was signed after the Harris measure was vetoed. "Obviously some people could say maybe the author being an issue with the governor but I have not heard any of that," he said.

Ward's legislation applies to students, administrators and faculty.

Under the bill, colleges and universities, in concert with the state Board of Regents, will be required to spell out policies that says students and faculty can sound off on any topic, assemble and make their views known as long as the activities are lawful and do not disrupt school operations.

Schools will be required to submit reports to the governor and the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2019 on how they are carrying out the law, including how students who believe their free speech rights have been threatened can seek relief.

They will also be required to submit annual reports on any barriers to free speech or incidents aimed at shutting it down.

Some college officials have expressed concerns about paperwork requirements under the law.

Ward said he made about a dozen changes in his bill suggested by LSU officials, agreeing to all but a few requests.

Harris voted for the legislation.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.