The storm of censorship on college campuses continues to swirl around the country.
But on college campuses and in state legislatures, defenders of free speech are pushing back. With some adjustment, a new proposal in Ohio looks promising.
Last week, Ohio lawmakers assigned a bill to committee to help preserve free speech on Ohio’s public college campuses. Sponsored by state Reps. Wesley Goodman, R-Cardington, and Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, the proposal prohibits state-funded schools from disinviting campus lecturers based on the content of their expression.
The proposal maintains that public colleges and universities must commit themselves to being bastions of free speech:
It is not the proper role of a state institution of higher education to shield individuals from expression protected by the United States … including, without limitation, ideas and opinions that the institution finds unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.
The Goodman-Brenner bill draws on ideas from the Goldwater Institute’s Campus Free Speech Act, which serves as a legislative template for state lawmakers to use in protecting free expression on public college campuses.
The Goldwater model, designed with Stanley Kurtz of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, says that state universities should allow anyone who is lawfully present on a public campus to demonstrate or protest in public areas, like sidewalks and spaces outside of buildings.
It also says colleges should make clear during freshman orientation that they are in favor of free speech and eliminate restrictive speech codes and so-called “free speech zones” on campus.
North Carolina lawmakers passed a law this summer based on the Goldwater model, and two weeks ago, the Wisconsin state university system governing board voted in favor of similar policies.
State representatives in Louisiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, California, Tennessee, and Virginia have considered similar legislation this year.
Recent activity in courts of law demonstrates that the threat to free speech on Ohio college campuses is real. In 2012, a federal court struck down portions of the University of Cincinnati’s speech code, arguing that the school’s restriction of protests to free speech zones violated the First Amendment.
Today, Ohio State University has a restrictive speech code in the form of a “Bias Assessment and Response Team.” This part of the school’s code allows individuals to anonymously accuse others of “bias acts,” which are defined as acts that “contribute to creating an unsafe, negative, or unwelcome environment.”
Campus officials can pursue investigations based on these anonymous tips.
More than 200 colleges and universities across the country have bias response teams. Their activities are both ridiculous and frightening.
Earlier this year, the University of Arizona announced it would pay students for secretly reporting on their peers. (The university later removed the job posting and said it would change the title of the position after media reports criticized the school’s actions.)
The University of Michigan announced a new position to coordinate the school’s bias response team activities, which included “cultural appropriation prevention activities.” That job listing has also since been removed.
The Ohio proposal begins to address restrictive speech codes like this, but it is missing key provisions meant to stop free speech violations. Legislators should include consequences, including suspension and expulsion, for individuals that block others from expressing their ideas.
Such measures date back to at least the 1970s, when a Yale University commission recommended sanctioning students for violating the First Amendment.
The Goldwater model includes language to accomplish this, along with due process protections for those accused of violating someone else’s free speech. It is vital that these provisions be included along with sanctions.
Students who are accused of materially and substantially infringing on other people’s rights to free expression should be informed of the charges against them, given adequate notice of when hearings on their case will be held, and given the ability to find representation.
Free speech is the cornerstone of a free and civilized society. It should not be controversial, especially on college campus.
State lawmakers and university officials should protect all students’ rights to express themselves. They shouldn’t have to wait until the rumblings of censorship are at their door for policymakers to act.