GOP lawmakers battle odds to salvage free speech at Evergreen
Republican lawmakers in Washington State are intensifying their opposition to the “assault on freedom of speech” on university campuses exemplified by the situation at Evergreen State College.
Following an initial effort to privatize and defund Evergreen in late May, a dozen GOP lawmakers are now broadening their legislative campaign to protect free speech at all state-funded colleges and universities.
"It’s critical that there is not one person deciding what is acceptable speech and what is not."
Sponsored by Rep. Jim Walsh and eleven other Republicans, the new legislation introduced last week contains language that prohibits universities from stifling free expression through speech codes, free speech zones, or prior restraint policies. The bill would also outlaw disinvitation of controversial speakers “based on the anticipated reaction or opposition of others to the content of speech.”
“It’s critical that there is not one person deciding what is acceptable speech and what is not,” Rep. Liz Pike, a co-sponsor of the legislation, said in an interview with Campus Reform. “It’s imperative that students…have the ability to hear all viewpoints. And this steady stream of one political ideology, this one drumbeat that’s happening on our college campuses, I think it’s disgusting, quite frankly.”
Rep. Luanne Van Werven, another Republican lawmaker fighting for free speech on college campuses, told Campus Reform that she is drafting new legislation that would mandate the addition of “political expression” to the list of categories protected by the anti-harassment policies of public universities.
“The typical state college has a glaring diversity problem. Conservative viewpoints are significantly underrepresented on college campuses and it’s time to correct this gross lack of diversity,” Van Werven explained in an email.
“I am drafting legislation to require the addition of ‘political expression’ to the diversity mission statements on public college campuses in Washington State,” she said, explaining that “this would apply to tolerance of student expression as well as recruiting and hiring faculty and ensuring a balance of speakers invited to campus.”
Despite the Republican pressure to pass legislation in response to the ongoing student protests at Evergreen University, however, the effort will likely meet resistance in the Democrat-controlled House.
Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democratic chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, made it clear that he will oppose the proposal to strip Evergreen of public state funding.
“We are not going to end public funding of Evergreen, or any other public university, because of student protests,” Hansen said in a statement after the introduction of the first GOP bill.
Pike also expressed doubts about the success of the legislation, noting that the chamber is currently under pressure to pass a two-year operating budget.
“Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of hope that these bills will advance. We are in special session right now, and we are under a big deadline to pass a two-year operating budget and the end of our fiscal year is coming up in a few weeks,” she noted. “These kinds of bills are very difficult to get through a divided legislature.”
Still, some lawmakers are determined to continue fighting for free expression despite the challenges of a divided state chamber. Both Pike and Van Werven noted that while many Democrats are supportive of the student protesters, a fraction remains sympathetic to the GOP cause.
“House and Senate Republicans are shocked by recent events at Evergreen College and will continue to keep the pressure on until we see fundamental change,” Van Werven pledged.
While Pike reiterated that the protesters at Evergreen are a “fringe element” of the student body, she also expressed disappointment that state lawmakers have to fight for something that is already protected under the U.S. constitution.
“It should not have to come to this where a couple of legislators stand up for something that is constitutionally protected,” she pointed out. “But that’s where we are. That’s how intolerant some people have become.”
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