First Amendment enforcement at public universities may change with new legislation
by Dakota Banks and Alexandria Hentschel
Ohio House representatives Wes Goodman and Andrew Brenner have announced a bill that enforces free speech at public universities. This legislation may change the climate of campuses across the state.
If passed, the bill will prohibit public universities from limiting expression based on content, audience reaction or expression in areas of public accessibility. It also stipulates that fees for organizations must be equal.
This would eliminate the “free speech zones” established at the University of Cincinnati and Columbus State University, which are currently the only protected areas on those campuses.
Over the past few years, there have been several violent incidents of students protesting speakers whose viewpoints they disagree with. Students at University of California Berkeley protested the presence of Milo Yiannopoulos, a conservative speaker. In 2014, University of Toledo campus police suppressed the protest of a Karl Rove event. Similar situations also erupted at Yale University and the University of Missouri.
The recent political climate has also added an extra layer of tension. Post-election turmoil resulted in dis-invitations for speakers at several universities, as administrators did not want to increase rioting and discontent on campuses.
In the wake of these recent events, university administrators have had to balance the protection of free speech with the protection of students. Goodman stated in an opinion piece that he believes the free flow of ideas on campuses is “critical,” given the formative nature of college years. This was his reasoning for drafting the bill — to ensure that all viewpoints are being equally represented at Ohio’s colleges.
Dr. Mark Caleb Smith, chair of Cedarville’s Department of History and Government, believes that administrators feel responsible for the well-being of their student body. He argues this is why they often acquiesce when students protest a speaker or event in case it would negatively impact the campus.
“Historically, protecting a student would be protecting them physically … making sure they have a safe environment,” he said. “Now, ‘safe’ is being interpreted as being free from certain kinds of views, freedom from certain kinds of words.”
Dr. Marc Clauson, professor of history and law at Cedarville, said he believes the bill may be somewhat superfluous in light of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. However, he said he understands why it was formulated, given the climate of political correctness on college campuses. He is a strong supporter of free speech in all areas.
“I think in the public setting [free speech] should always be legal, as long as it’s not inducement to action,” he said. “If public universities are going to insist on stopping free speech on their campuses, then I don’t know how else we’re going to stop it, except to just allow the court systems to handle it. You could call it a necessary evil.”
Ohio is not the first state to consider a bill that mandates free speech on college campuses. North Carolina, Utah, Colorado, Tennessee, and Virginia have all passed similar laws, and other states have bills in development.
Another key aspect of the bill is how funding influences the decision-making of universities. Smith pointed out that the trends of public opinion will influence where students choose to attend college. Students may protest certain speakers or events to the extent that they will choose not to attend a certain university, and that could change the campus climate. Universities will likely consider enrollment to be the biggest factor.
“You could see some institutions eventually saying, ‘You know what, there are a bunch of institutions out here on the right who might like us — if we push more in that direction, we might get more students.’ That would just be clear market,” Smith said. “At the same time you have institutions coming under economic pressure from fewer students and more online opportunities … so you wonder whether the market forces will shape some of this.”
The bill does not affect Cedarville as a private university. However, Clauson argues that the overall principle of the free expression of ideas, and the growing issue of “safe spaces,” could create a climate that might affect Christian universities and institutions.
“The Supreme Court will always rule in favor of speech, and against those who are trying to cut off or regulate the speech,” Clauson said. “It wouldn’t change the ability of people who wanted to speak to speak, but as long we’re private we still get to decide those issues.”
Dakota Banks is a sophomore biology major and an off-campus news writer for Cedars. She loves cats and always being positive.
Alexandria Hentschel is a sophomore International Studies and Spanish double major and the Off-Campus news editor for Cedars. She enjoys old books, strong coffee, and honest debate.
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