Protecting Free Speech on Campus
Campus Free Speech Act, HB 363, Introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives
By Bill Perry
The Ohio Campus Free Speech Act, first proposed in late August by State Representatives Wesley A. Goodman (R-Cardington) and Andrew Brenner (R- Powell) in a news conference is now introduced in the Ohio House of Representatives as H.B.364. The bill aims to ensure that the laws, policies, and conduct of Ohio’s public colleges and universities be fully consistent with the First Amendment.
Representative Goodman said that since the legislature is currently out of session, the Rules and Reference Committee will meet to make a decision on which committee HB 363 will be referred to, most likely in a few weeks.
Goodman said that as you look around the country on college campuses, we are really seeing a breakdown in communication in civic dialogue. “This is necessary for a healthy and constitutional republic to exist,” he said. “Our ability to communicate ideas and opinions to each other and to do so in an informed and civil way is a necessary prerequisite of self- government.”
The bill aims to ensure that the laws, policies, and conduct of Ohio’s public colleges and universities support students and their right to have meaningful and impactful educational experiences in a way that prepares them to be active and engaged citizens.
Goodman emphasized that the First Amendment guarantees that government will not step in to stop the expression of sincerely held beliefs and speech. “We look around the country at public colleges and universities that are frankly, extensions of government, and they are stepping in inappropriately and censoring that ability of students, or people lawfully present on campus to have these debates that are necessary for the health of the country.”
Goodman said that Ohio has not had major issues on a college campus with respect to free speech restrictions. “The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education still finds that all but one of our public universities maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech,” he said. “We don’t want universities tilting the scales one way or the other, one opinion over another and certainly not stifling debate.”
Goodman’s position was echoed by his colleague and bill co-sponsor Representative Andrew Brenner. “Defending the First Amendment is always important, and that is a duty incumbent upon state legislators to defend the Ohio and U.S. Constitution. We must do anything we can to protect these rights, especially for students attending public universities which are backed by taxpayer dollars,” Brenner emphasized. “College student have a right to speak.”
Brenner aimed at a recent decision by the administration at The Ohio State University in the dorm rooms that prohibited the display of political signs in dorm windows. “Freshman and sophomores being required to live on campus and paying for the dorm rooms. These are students who are adults and to be told that they cannot put something up in the windows is unacceptable. We want free speech rights protected and that’s the reason for the bill. People have a right to free speech, but not to do physical harm to others. If someone is going to commit a violent act, arrest them and throw them in jail.”
Reese Brooks, Young Americans for Liberty, state chair, and Students for Liberty, regional director at The Ohio State University is an advocate for passage of HB 363. “It makes a universal policy on college campuses in Ohio to ensure free speech,” said Reese, who is an OSU senior. “Ohio State has specific free speech polices to ensure free expression of ideas, but noted that other public colleges and universities do not have similar policies. “ Reese said enacting HB 363, will make free speech guarantees a universal policy and more standardized throughout the public colleges and universities system in Ohio.
While not taking a position on the bill at this time, Mike Brickner, of the ACLU, Ohio, said they are reviewing the legislation. “College campuses are supposed to be marketplaces of ideas where we stimulate a lot of discussion from various and different experiences. That is a really positive thing.”
Brickner said the ACLU is glad that legislators want to look at the issue. “We are reviewing the proposed legislation and there are some things that could be very good in here, but also making sure the legislation does not create unintended consequences. There’s always the question of what do you want to enshrine in state law, and what is better left up to the courts for interpretation.”
Brickner emphasized that in terms of the overall issue, the ACLU wants campuses to be citadels of free speech, and that young people are exposed to a wide variety of beliefs. He said where there is disagreement, students should have the opportunity to protest to ensure a marketplace of free speech.
Goodman and Brenner emphasized that several states in recent months and years have adopted policies on a bipartisan basis to maximize First Amendment freedoms on college campuses. This is not about privileging or advancing one viewpoint over another, or about stifling opinions disagreed with or even find abhorrent. Goodman and Brenner said it is about ensuring that Ohio’s students have every ability to freely and peacefully debate ideas, pursue truth, and reject error.
The bill does the following:
Prohibits universities and administrators from taking action, including communicating in an official capacity, that limits or chills the expression of any member of the campus community or their invited guests based on the content of the expression.
Eliminates “free speech zones” by declaring generally accessible areas traditional public forums for expression and prohibiting universities from limiting the space for expression within those areas.
Prevents “heckler’s vetoes” by prohibiting universities from disinviting speakers based on the potential reaction, opposition, offense, or irritation taken to that speaker’s expression.
Makes student activity fees optional.
Requires universities to distribute student activity fees in a manner that is neutral to each organization’s viewpoint and expression.
Allows those aggrieved by violations of the act to bring a cause of action against the state institution and/or other responsible individuals.
Requires universities to develop a free speech policy consistent with the act, and to educate their students, faculty, and administrators about the policy.
Both Brenner and Goodman arrived at this point in their lives and careers by vigorously and thoroughly debating ideas and principles. Both have been freely challenged their viewpoints and have engaged in peaceful debate about deeply held beliefs.
It is only through that process of free expression and debate, and not through government suppression or censorship, that the free minds and free people who have made this country special for centuries can continue to flourish. HB 363 is an effort to carry it forward for the next generation of Ohioans.