Our Opinion: Free speech bill a reason to cheer on Fourth of July

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Just in time for Independence Day, state lawmakers signed off on a bill to protect a fundamental American freedom for young citizens.

House Bill 527, the Restore and Preserve Campus Free Speech Act, was ratified Thursday, the second-to-last day before legislators recessed the 2017 long session. The bill now awaits Gov. Roy Cooper’s signature.

HB 527 will prevent University of North Carolina institutions from maintaining and enforcing speech codes — written rules that limit expression protected by the First Amendment. Thanks to the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause, such rules were already unlawful. But colleges often used them to curtail campus speech, and students were forced to either endure censorship or sue their alma mater in federal court.

The N.C. House voted 80-31 to approve a Senate committee substitute that tweaked the bill’s language. Rep. Susan Martin, R-Wilson, voted to uphold free-speech rights on UNC campuses. Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, had an excused absence and was not present when the vote was taken.

In the Senate’s 34-11 vote approving the measure, Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson, voted with the majority and Sen. Angela Bryant, D-Nash, sided with the opposition.

Some Democrats opposed the campus free speech bill due to language authorizing disciplinary sanctions for anyone who “substantially interferes with the protected free expression rights of others, including protests and demonstrations that infringe upon the rights of others to engage in and listen to expressive activity.”

Reading between the lines for intent that simply isn’t there, holdouts infer a coming crackdown on college protests — which are, they correctly note, an exercise of free speech.

Dissent will not be silenced under HB 527. However, demonstrations that turn to riots and force the cancellation of controversial assemblies, such as the violence and vandalism that scuttled Milo Yiannopoulous’ February speech at the University of California-Berkeley, must not be tolerated.

If progressives can’t differentiate between peaceful protest and censorship by crowd, perhaps they need a refresher course in constitutional law. They can rest assured that even if HB 527 did impose excessive limits on student demonstrations, First Amendment protections still reign supreme.

State legislatures don’t have the authority to take away constitutional rights. This bill seeks to remind university administrators that they similarly lack such sweeping powers.

A national culture of political correctness has spawned a wave of campus codes that punish controversial expression. Student groups label ideas that offend them “hate speech” — an ominous-sounding term with no accepted legal definition in the U.S. — and demand “safe spaces” that limit intellectual freedom and academic inquiry.

HB 527 slaps down those shenanigans in University of North Carolina schools. It’s about time.

The American colonists who declared independence from Great Britain in 1776 would go on to reject the crown’s stifling seditious libel laws and write freedom of speech into the American Bill of Rights after winning the Revolutionary War.

As all Americans join together to mark the Fourth of July, North Carolina public college students have an extra reason to celebrate today.