Steve Bannon speaks (copy)

Steve Bannon, the controversial former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, was the featured speaker at the Citadel Republican Society student organization's Patriot Dinner in the Holliday Alumni Center on Nov. 10, 2017. File/Wade Spees/Staff​

COLUMBIA — As the debate rages nationally about controversial figures invited to speak at college campuses, a bill in the S.C. House seeks to protect student groups who invite people who express contentious views.

Rep. Garry R. Smith, a Greenville Republican who is the bill's main sponsor, said the measure is aimed at streamlining university policies for handling free speech disputes. 

The bill, likely to see a House vote with a co-sponsorship from Speaker Jay Lucas, prohibits colleges and universities from discriminating against a student group based on "the expression of the organization."

As part of such disputes, the bill authorizes students to take legal action against their college or university under state law.

That means a student or group would be able to sue their own university if administrators try to block them.

The House Higher Education Subcommittee said it would further consider the bill in another meeting after an hour-long discussion Wednesday. The panel in its next discussion will hear from more members of the public, said Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, the committee chairman.

The bill requires colleges and universities to publish an annual report summarizing any on-campus speech disputes. The report must also include court papers from any free speech lawsuits filed against the college or university.

Rep. MaryGail Douglas, D-Winnsboro, requested another discussion on the bill after she said she was concerned it went too far. 

"I'm wondering ... if it's overreach, for me," she said.

A streamlining of university policies would cause a decrease in litigation, Smith said, while allowing free speech litigation to be brought under state law.

"The intent is not to overreach," Smith said. "It's to prevent what has already been considered by the courts and many others of the public of the overreach that's already taking place."

At the University of South Carolina, two recent incidents involving racist speech on campus prompted a Feb. 6 warning from President Harris Pastides. 

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"We will confront you," he said at a campus rally. "We will take action against you."

During Wednesday's discussion, Taylor asked if Smith's bill would prevent universities from expelling students who express racist views. 

Under the bill, "a solitary instance would not necessarily qualify" as harassment that would be punishable, said Travis Barham, a lawyer for Alliance Defending Freedom, an advocacy group that provided legal work on Smith's bill. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center designates ADF as a hate group. 

ADF has "defended state-sanctioned sterilization of transgender people abroad, linked homosexuality to pedophilia and claims that a 'homosexual agenda' will destroy Christianity and society," according to the law center's website.

Smith defended the group.

"The whole reason they're classified is because of their work in protecting freedom and religious rights," he said.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.