Free speech is becoming a highly charged issue on some college campuses, where mostly right wing speakers are sometimes heckled, halted and in rare cases attacked. Now, states are cracking down on colleges stifling their students’ right to speech and assembly.
Ohio is joining a handful of states including, Tennessee, Arizona and Colorado, that have passed or introduced legislation designed to prevent student bodies and university officials limiting speech from political viewpoints that are less popular on campuses.
Ohio House Education Committee Chairman Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, and state Rep. Wes Goodman, R-Cardington, announced they will introduce a bill aimed at curtailing the perceived rollback of students and speakers being able to freely express themselves. If the bill passes, colleges would no longer be allowed to revoke an speaker's invitation out of fear of public reaction.
“College is a transformative time for young people,” said Rep. Goodman. “A free and open exchange of speech and ideas is critical to ensuring that our students have the most meaningful education experience possible, preparing them to be active and engaged citizens in our republic.”
The move comes after a large list of anecdotes of students and faculty lashing out and pressuring college administrations to quash demonstrations and speakers typically associated with right wing politics — and in some rare instances, left wing speakers that may not totally subscribe to all progressive ideas.
There are no high profile examples of intolerance towards political views turning violent at Ohio schools or protesters getting out of hand. However, Brenner says Ohio is not isolated from student activists and administrators setting up roadblocks to demonstrations and speakers.
In 2012 a federal judge struck down the University of Cincinnati’s “free speech zone,” which limited demonstrations to a small portion of campus property. The judge ruled the school’s policy violated the First Amendment.
The suit against UC was filed shortly after Young Americans for Liberty, a national Libertarian student activist group born from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, was denied permission to gather signatures across campus for a “Right to Work” ballot initiative.
Sometimes students lashing out against speakers have turned violent:
“You only need to turn on the news to see the disregard with which free speech rights are treated on campuses around the country,” Rep. Brenner said. “We have been fortunate to avoid the madness of UC Berkeley or the University of Missouri, but Ohio is not immune. A mentality is creeping into our culture that views disagreeable speech as inherently hateful, or even violent. We must act now to ensure our students understand and receive full protection for their speech rights.”
The Ohio Campus Free Speech Act is only in draft and will be formally introduced to a House committee in the future.
The bill is planned to do the following:
• Prohibits universities and administrators from taking action, including communicating in an official capacity, that limits or chills the expression of any member of the campus community or their invited guests based on the content of the expression
• Eliminates “free speech zones” by declaring generally accessible areas traditional public forums for expression and prohibiting universities from limiting the space for expression within those areas
• Prevents “heckler’s vetoes” by prohibiting universities from disinviting speakers based on the potential reaction, opposition, offense, or irritation taken to that speaker’s expression
• Makes student activity fees optional
• Requires universities to distribute student activity fees in a manner that is neutral to each organization’s viewpoint and expression
• Allows those aggrieved by violations of the act to bring a cause of action against the state institution and/or other responsible individuals
• Requires universities to develop a free speech policy consistent with the act, and to educate their students, faculty, and administrators about the policy
Critics say the violent clashes and campus outrage are indicative of intolerance towards conservative viewpoints at American universities. In extreme cases, universities have sometimes had to cancel visits from some speakers due to public safety concerns. But speakers are often invited back to the school.
Protests have erupted over the appearance of a number of political speakers over the years ranging from alt-right commentators like Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter to moderate conservatives like Ben Shapiro to liberal comedians such as Bill Maher.
In 2014, Maher was selected to give Berkely's commencement address. A student group that's tasked with selecting commencement speakers withdrew the invitation after Maher said Islamic fundamentalism is antithetical to liberal values. However, the school overturned the decision.
Coulter's speech at the same campus was also cancelled last month. However, she was invited back along with Yiannopoulos and Steve Bannon for "Free Speech Week" in September.
Some high profile personalities like Shapiro say they have had to beef up their personal security and comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Burr no longer perform at universities, saying students are too easily offended.
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