Campus free-speech bill heads to Governor DeWine for signature

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Public universities and colleges across Ohio won't be able to say no to controversial speakers or ask groups sponsoring them to pay for security once Governor Mike DeWine signs a bill passed by the legislature last week. Headed to the Governor’s desk is a bill, S.B. 40, that would effectively ban Ohio colleges and universities from preventing speakers from coming to their campuses and speaking.  This legislation has come out of the four-year battle in which universities (under pressure from faculty, students and the general public) across the country, and specifically here in Ohio, have tried to prevent certain type of speakers – mainly conservative speakers – from coming to their campuses to speak and for sponsored events.  

The bill bans “free speech zones,” security fees for speakers and official warnings about potentially triggering content. Certain time, place and manner restrictions would be okay so long as school officials provided ample options based on “content-neutral criteria.” And students could be penalized for harassing event attendees under harassment policies that are required for schools.  Schools like Ohio University and Ohio State University have had several high-profile events in the past causing those universities to take controversial steps to limit or cancel certain events and pass restrictive rules and regulations towards certain types of speakers. Thus our legislature in Columbus, dominated by Republicans, felt that the time was now to stop this type of censorship at our state universities and colleges.

There are a few schools that have been ahead of the curve and blazed the trail for this legislation.  One example is at Cleveland State University, which not long ago passed an “Expressive Activities Policy.”  The purpose of CSU’s policy is to promote the free exchange of ideas and the safe and efficient operation of the university by: (1) fostering free speech, assembly and other expressive activities on university property by all persons, whether or not they are affiliated with the university, (2) maintaining an appropriate educational and work environment for all persons present on university property, including but not limited to students, faculty, employees, customers and visitors, and (3) maintaining the personal security of all persons present on university property and protecting the property of the university and of persons present on university property. 

In developing this policy, CSU recognized the constitutional freedoms guaranteed by the United States and Ohio constitutions, including freedoms of speech, press and assembly. The university also recognized the need to preserve and protect its property, students, guests and employees of the university, and to ensure the effective operation of educational, business and related activities of the university. Expressive activities on the university’s campus are now subject to reasonable regulation with regard to the time, place and manner of the activities. College employees are not allowed to consider the content of expressive activities when enforcing this policy. No policy can address every possible activity or situation that may occur on university property, and the university reserves the right to address such situations as circumstances warrant. What was even more impressive about CSU’s policy is that it was crafted and passed both by the administration and the faculty together, something not often easy to achieve. 

At the time of its ratification, the CSU Faculty Senate issued a statement which read in part:

“Because Cleveland State University is committed to free and open inquiry in all matters, it guarantees all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, and learn. Except insofar as limitations on that freedom are necessary to the functioning of the University, Cleveland State University fully respects and supports the freedom of all members of the University community to discuss any problem that presents itself. Of course, the ideas of different members of the collegiate community will often and quite naturally conflict. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive. Although the University greatly values civility, and although all members of the University community share in the responsibility for maintaining a climate of mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.”

S.B. 40 was necessary because, incredibly, universities and colleges – the places where normally students and faculty in the past could hear and discuss new ideas, both controversial and non-controversialS.B. 40 was necessary because, incredibly, universities and colleges – the places where normally students and faculty in the past could hear and discuss new ideas, both controversial and non-controversial – had become places of censorship and abandonment of these principles.  Thus, upon the Governor’s signature, a little bit of sanity will be brought back to Ohio’s campuses – and students, faculty, the general public, and the First Amendment will greatly benefit.

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