Ky. free speech bill cruises through legislature, awaits gov's signature

Despite criticism by the state’s American Civil Liberties Union, a Kentucky bill protecting free speech on campus has passed the state’s House of Representatives and Senate and now awaits approval by the governor.

HB 254 would force public universities in Kentucky to adopt measures making certain that individuals do not “substantially obstruct or otherwise substantially interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject.” The bill would also mandate that schools do not confine free speech to “free speech zones” and allow guest speakers to address campuses regardless of their views, The Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

HB 254 sailed through Kentucky’s Senate with a 30-7 vote on Thursday after the state’s House approved it by a 64-33 margin on March 12.

[RELATED: Ky. bill would make every zone a ‘free speech zone’]

“I think everyone in this body would agree that universities are meant to be the place of discussion and debate,” Republican state Sen. Wil Schroder said, according to WVTQ. “Yet, unfortunately, many of our universities have policies in place to prohibit the marketplace of ideas.”

Schroder compared HB 254 to a 2018 Senate bill, which the Senate passed but which ultimately failed.

The state’s ACLU chapter is not thrilled with the bill. 

Kate Miller, advocacy director for the Kentucky chapter, suggested to the Louisville Courier-Journal that the bill could lead to counter-protester speech being silenced.

”We believe that, first and foremost, the First Amendment does a fine job of protecting free speech and that we should rely on the protections enshrined in our Constitution rather than putting into place these types of state regulations,” she told the outlet.

[RELATED: MAP: Growing number of states consider free speech bills]

Kentucky Democrat Sen. Morgan McGarvey voted against the bill, citing a similar reason.

Tyler Coward, a legislative counsel for free speech nonprofit the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told the Courier-Journal that individuals should be able to use the bill’s provision to gauge whether their behavior “crosses the line from protected counter-protests to unprotected material and substantial disruptions of another person’s expressive activity.”

Gov. Matt Bevin did not respond to a request for comment on the bill in time for publication.

Utah’s Senate spiked a similar bill earlier in March.

[RELATED: Free speech bill passes Utah House. Senate says not so fast.]

Its sponsor, Utah Republican state Rep. Kim Coleman, pledged to keep fighting for free speech on campus.

The passage of the Kentucky bill comes amid a larger push by President Donald Trump on college campuses after Leadership Institute Field Representative Hayden Williams, an employee of Campus Reform’s parent organization, suffered a punch to the face at the University of California-Berkeley last month.  At CPAC, Trump announced his intent to sign an executive order that would pull funding from colleges and universities that do not adequately support free speech on campus. 

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @ShimshockAndAwe