Conservatives try to solve campus free speech problem many on the left deny exists
In 2019, several states including Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas passed campus free speech legislation. That same year, President Donald Trump signed a campus free speech executive order.
Now, in 2020, even more states are pushing legislation to protect students' First Amendment rights on college campuses, with lawmakers in several states presenting bills during their legislative sessions, including Wisconsin, Mississippi, Ohio, and Utah.
But passing such bills is easier said than done, since some on the left deny a problem exists in the first place.
In Wisconsin, Rep. Cody Horlacher and Sen. Chris Kapenga introduced a bill that would require the Wisconsin Board of Regents to implement a policy disciplining students and staff that “engages in violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free expression of others." Some disciplinary measures include suspension and being expelled.
Assembly Bill 444 was published in September 2019 and has since added co-sponsors.
Rep. Katrina Shankland and other Democrats opposed the bill as “a bad solution in search of a problem," saying it could “backfire tremendously.”
Shankland and Wisconsin Democrats are not the only ones opposed to free speech legislation, however.
As Campus Reform has previously reported, the American Association of University Professors has warned against similar legislative measures.
“The AAUP strongly supports freedom of expression on campus,” AAUP Senior Program Officer Gwendolyn Bradley said in a statement to Campus Reform following Trump's free speech executive order in 2019. “We also support the autonomy of colleges and universities and the roles of college faculty, administration, and governing board in making decisions about their college or university. And we support the role of students in making institutional policies affecting student affairs. Therefore, we oppose legislative and executive interference into college and university governance. Allowing politicians to interfere in campus policy sets a dangerous precedent.”
But Northeast Wisconsin Technical College alumna Polly Olsen is proof, according to free speech legislation advocates, that such measures are needed, having recently won a case against her school, which stopped her from handing out Valentines with religious messages on them.
“Having testified on behalf of this bill before the Wisconsin Senate and Assembly committee, I found the reaction of those who opposed this bill to be very threatening to the freedom of speech on campuses across Wisconsin and the United States," Northeast Wisconsin Technical alumni Polly Olsen told Campus Reform.
"I was told that this bill was being created in search of a problem and that there is no threat to freedom of speech on campuses," Olsen added.
In Mississippi, Sen. Chris Caughman and Sen. Angela Hill are presenting a bill that prohibits “any public university or community college that violates first amendment rights of speech, religion and association on behalf of students or faculty”.
According to the bill, if a public university or community college implements an unconstitutional policy, the governor “shall notify the president of the university or college of the noncompliance and the state fiscal officer shall withhold all state funding for such university or college” until that school complies with the law.
“SB 2050 is a common-sense solution to a problem that is, unfortunately, becoming more and more common, even right here in Mississippi. Public colleges are just that, public. They are funded by taxpayers, so common sense says they are required to abide by the Constitution of the United States. If they fail to do so by enacting policies that are unconstitutional, pull the state funding. This bill, if passed, will make public colleges and universities think twice before they enact unlawful policies restricting their students’ and faculty's first amendment right,” Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College student Ray Lee told Campus Reform.
Lee also spoke about how his College Republicans chapter was told by MGCC to remove the group’s Facebook account or face “disciplinary action” by the school. The school ended up revising the policy.
In Ohio, Sen. Andrew Brenner and Sen. Rob McColley are sponsoring S.B. 40, which will prevent universities and colleges from creating free speech zones and discourages violent behavior that disrupts speakers.
The bill will also require institutions of higher education to “make public in its handbook, on its web site, and in its orientation programs for students the policies, regulations, and expectations of students regarding free expression on campus.”
The bill passed unanimously on the Senate floor.
After it failed on the Utah Senate floor in 2019, Rep. Kim Coleman is bringing back her campus free speech bill that “enacts provisions related to discriminatory harassment and expression at an institution of higher education.” The bill originally failed in the House Judiciary Committee, but the bill was brought back and passed. It passed on the House floor and advanced to the Senate where it eventually failed.
Coleman has worked on and passed free speech legislation including banning free speech zones on college campuses and allowing students to submit policy complaints to higher education agencies. Coleman is now running for U.S. Congress.
“Free speech and protection of marginalized groups requires some degree of balance. It’s critically important that we protect the right of students to openly and safely share their views, but it’s also important that those free speech rights aren’t used destructively or with malice. As the bill was written in the past, my belief is that it would have shifted the balance against victims of racism, sexism, and bigotry in a way that would be unjust and unhealthy,” Rep. Brian King wrote in response to a University of Utah student regarding the bill.
“Campus free speech in Utah, in general, is protected, free speech zones are illegal, what we are dealing with is more subtle attacks on free speech. Weird rules make it more difficult to get a message out on campus,” Utah Valley University student Sarah Clark told Campus Reform.
"These rules can seem ‘reasonable’ to some but have much more sinister consequences in practice. For example security fees for speakers. Universities slap enormous fees for 'security” if an event is even the slightest bit controversial. I dealt with security fees for my Campus Clash event at UVU because some students organized a protest. That’s fine, they’re allowed to do that, however later in the semester the club office kept requiring security at our events, even those that weren’t controversial. We held a debate, absolutely no threat of violence whatsoever, yet they charged our club for police fees. What kind of example does that set? Host an event with some protesters and get punished for every future event after that?” she said.
Clark explained how she was kicked off campus while tabling in an outdoor area.
“Free speech is under attack. It’s not always as obvious, but it’s just as damaging," she added.
“On college campuses, [free speech] should be protected & allowed, just as it is in everyday society. If the college is receiving government funding, there’s no reason they should be limiting speech at all,” Mississippi College student Evan Sanders told Campus Reform.
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