Campus free-speech bill sparks debate

November 15, 2017

The state of Ohio’s House of Representatives introduced a bill in September that, if passed in its present form, would put limits on public universities and colleges for disinviting speakers on the content of their speeches and make student activity fees optional.


The bill entitled “the Campus Free Speech Act” is partisan and was written by Republican State Representatives Andrew Brenner and Wesley Goodman. It is sponsored by 31 House Republicans with no Democratic support.


If enacted, the bill will waive public universities’ and colleges’ state amendment immunity from lawsuit in federal courts and permit campus employees and campus community members the right to file suit for violation of free expression rights, according to the legislation.



Not everyone agrees with this bill though.


Jimmy Russell, student government president and third-year political science major, disagrees with the student activity fee policies the bill outlines and some of the free speech policies, but if the bill is amended, he may support it.


“It waives the university’s 11th amendment immunity from federal court,” Russell said. “It opens up the university to a lot of fluff litigation with no legal grounds.”


Russell said the university does not support this bill, but no official statement has been made by UT.


“The idea behind the bill was free speech,” Brenner said. “A bunch of conservatives, conservative groups and college Republicans have been concerned because of things going on all over the United States about free speech issues, so we decided to introduce the bill.”   


Events including the riots aimed at speaker Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley University in California inspired this legislation, he said.


“There has been some discussion of this [Richard] Spencer speaking on college campuses, but the fact is that he has to be invited by a student or student organization for our bill to kick in,” Brenner said. “He can’t just go onto a college campus or public university to give a speech without being invited by at least a student, student organization or student body.”


According to Brenner, most speakers would be allowed to talk on campuses in the bill’s current state, but anyone promoting acts of terrorism or violence would not be allowed on campuses. However, if someone is speaking about their interpretation of the Quran, they will be protected by the bill.


“Ideas have to be exchanged and you have to use logic and reason to challenge those other ideas to make sure that there is a check and a balance there,” Brenner said. 


The bill is currently being debated by the Higher Education and Workforce Department Committee, Brenner said.


One of the questions asked in the committee was, “What if a riot broke out during a speech?”      


Universities and colleges must adopt rules of conduct for students, faculty, visitors and staff, and can use local or state law enforcement if the need arises, Brenner said.


“If people are going to start rioting and causing problems, then arrest them if they are causing damage. But if it is a peaceful protest, I don’t have any problems,” Brenner said. “I’m for law and order.”


If a university does impose restrictions such as high entry fees or disinvites a speaker, students can choose not to pay activity fees as a form of protest, Brenner said.


Student activity fees only made $56.02 per student during the 2017 fiscal year, according to the 2017 fiscal year fee allocation records.


However, Russell doesn’t think this form of protest will work in practice because students will waive the fees to save money.                                  


“I brought the bill up with the [Student Government] cabinet,” Russell said. “From what they’ve said, not many of the major groups are in favor of this. The one that might end up being more in favor is the commuter body because they don’t use some of these services.”


Other student governments across Ohio are not in favor of the bill because of the activity fee policy, Russell said. He said the results from a survey by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion reported that one group felt their voices are not heard – conservative students, groups and faculty.


“Although, I know this is something the university is actively working to improve upon,” Russell said.


Some students are trying to bring Ben Shapiro to campus, but there are no current plans to invite him, according to Russell.


“I am a believer that you shouldn’t uninvite someone to speak, because they have the right to freedom of speech,” Russell said. “If you disagree, then disagree.”

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