Ohio Lawmakers Raise Questions of Free Speech on Campus
With the school year starting and many controversial issues on the left and the right to discuss, debate and protest, people have been talking a lot about free speech on college campuses. Two conservative Republican state lawmakers are drawing up a new bill that they say will ensure all points of view are represented at Ohio’s public universities.
There are no flags or signs in the windows of dorms at Ohio State University in Columbus this year because of a new policy. And some students, like senior Nick Bellopatrick, are not happy about it.
“Instead of banning what people would consider hateful and hurtful to everybody, they’re banning everybody. Like we can’t even have an Ohio State flag or an American flag in our window. We can have nothing.”
'Universities sometimes walk a tight rope between enforcement of their non-discrimination policies and free speech, so many times those things can collide on campus.'
In a written statement, the assistant vice president for media and public relations at Ohio State University says the school has a longstanding commitment to free speech. Chris Davey defends the new rules, saying they are consistent with the First Amendment as well as the university’s teaching, research and service missions.
On other campuses
OSU students aren’t the only ones complaining about the violation of free speech rights these days. Two state lawmakers say they’ve heard complaints, too. Republican Rep. Wes Goodman explains the goal of what he calls the "Free speech Act."
“This is not about privileging or advancing one viewpoint over another or about stifling opinions we disagree with or even find abhorrent.”
Aaron Baer with Citizens for Community Values, a group backing the bill, says incidents involving free speech aren’t new, and they don’t always involve major universities. He says they often involve conservative issues.
For example: Students who oppose abortion wanted to hand out flyers at Columbus State Community College in 2013.
“Columbus State had a free speech zone policy which essentially limited the student’s ability to hand out these flyers to less than 1 percent of the campus in terms of acreage.”
Republican Rep. Andy Brenner says those free speech zones would be history under this bill.
The bill also would bar "hecklers vetoes" by prohibiting universities from dis-inviting speakers based upon the potential reaction, opposition, offense or irritation taken to that speaker’s expression.
"It makes student activity fees optional. It requires universities to distribute student activity fees in a manner that is neutral to each organization’s viewpoint or expression.
"So in other words, if you are going to charge a fee for one student organization, you are going to charge the exact same fee for all student organizations, regardless of the organization.”
But there are questions about the proposal. And Gary Daniels with the ACLU of Ohio says this organization’s lawyers will be taking a close look at the bill.
“Universities sometimes walk a tight rope between enforcement of their non-discrimination policies and free speech so many times those things can collide on campus. We understand both sides of that but we think, by and large, it’s the First Amendment that wins out.
"But the problem with constitutional law and law in general is much of this can be very nuanced, specific to individual situations so we want to make sure this bill will be striking the right balance there and keeping all of these concerns in mind.”
Striking a balance could be the key for the lawmakers who support this bill if and when it gets hearings once legislators come back in a few days.