Illinois rep introduces Campus Free Speech Act

Illinois' Campus Free Speech Act includes provisions requiring public colleges and universities to adopt speech policies and provide information on those policies during freshman orientation.

Think tanks have offered similar policy proposals to combat a speech climate that impedes the exchange of ideas, including The Heritage Foundation’s 2023 education agenda.

Republican State Sen. Thomas Bennett recently introduced the Campus Free Speech Act to protect and monitor freedom of expression at Illinois’ colleges and universities. 

“Public institutions of higher education have historically embraced a commitment to freedom of expression in policy,” SB0150 reads. 

“In recent years, some public institutions of higher education have abdicated their responsibility to uphold free-speech principles, and these failures make it appropriate for all public institutions of higher education to restate and confirm their commitment in this regard.”

The bill, referred to Assignments by the Illinois Senate, would require each university’s board of trustees to adopt campus speech policies. The Board of Higher Education–which oversees Illinois State University (ISU), the University of Illinois at Springfield (UIS), and other public universities–would create a committee on free expression with representatives from each university. 

[RELATED: UPDATE: MIT faculty vote to adopt free expression statement]

Freshman orientations would also have to explain speech policies to incoming students. The policies, according to the bill, must include provisions acknowledging that it is not a university’s job to shield students from protected speech, that universities must establish procedures for protecting the speech of invited speakers, and that universities cannot act in a way that could compel students or faculty to adopt stances “on the public policy controversies of the day.”

Blake Wood, the’ Interim Director of Public Relations at UIS, referred Campus Reform to the University of Illinois System’s Guiding Principles. One section, “Freedom of Speech on Campus,” states that “[a]n unyielding allegiance to freedom of speech–even controversial, contentious, and unpopular speech–is indispensable.”

Wood told Campus Reform that the Campus Free Speech Act “was recently introduced,” and the UIS “government relations team is still reviewing the bill.”

“At this time, we have not taken a position on this legislation,” he continued. 

Illinois failed to pass a Campus Free Speech Act in 2019, which never made it out of committee. This year’s act comes as data show a nationwide uptick in speech restrictions on college campuses. 

For the first time since 2007, the percentage of schools given a “red light” from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) increased. Red light schools, as Campus Reform reported, are those with restrictive speech policies or that restrict public access to its policies. 

Students are complicit in campus speech climates, according to another report from FIRE. When FIRE Legislative Fellow Greg Gonzalez spoke at a Congressional Campus Free Speech Roundtable reported by Campus Reform, he shared data points on incivility and self-censorship. 

Nearly 20 percent of students find using violence to disrupt a speech acceptable, “62 percent of students said that shouting down a speaker was acceptable,” and “over 80 percent of students self-censor at least some of the time,” Gonzalez said during the Roundtable. 

[RELATED: 2023 Outlook: Bias reporting systems continue to infringe 1A rights]

Think tanks have offered policy proposals to combat a speech climate that impedes the exchange of ideas. The Heritage Foundation’s 2023 education agenda shared “Securing Free Speech” as one of four major policy areas. 

The agenda has similar speech protections as Illinois’ Campus Free Speech Act, including prohibiting “free speech zones” and the punishment of students and faculty who publicly hold different positions “on current issues” than those of their university.

“While many institutions claim to pursue ethnic ‘diversity, equity, and inclusion,’ few allow a diversity of viewpoints to reside on campus,” the agenda reads. 

“State lawmakers should protect the right of anyone lawfully present on a public college campus to listen and be heard, especially when school administrators fail to defend freedom of speech and expression.”

Campus Reform contacted all relevant parties listed for comment and will update this article accordingly.