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Free and open speech for students

Ohio legislature passes bill to protect freedom of expression on campus

Students on the campus of Oberlin College in Ohio Associated Press/Photo by Tony Dejak (file)

Free and open speech for students

The Ohio House of Representatives approved a bill to abolish free speech zones on college campuses, bringing the state one step closer to bolstering its students’ rights.

The bill takes aim at university administrators’ attempts in recent years to shut down disfavored opinions by limiting protests or other speech to tiny “free-speech zones.” In 2012, a federal court struck down a University of Cincinnati policy that limited demonstrations, picketing, and rallies to a zone constituting less than 0.1 percent of campus.

If enacted, the legislation would also stop schools from assessing content-based fees for additional security for student-invited speakers based on concerns about inciting violence. Proponents of the bill argued that colleges use such fees to block appearances by conservative speakers, as when the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a speech by controversial conservative Milo Yiannopoulos in 2017.

The House vote largely followed party lines, with a handful of Democrats joining Republicans to pass the bill 65-27. Democratic Rep. Catherine Ingram charged that the bill was really meant to promote right-wing speech on campus, reported The Plain Dealer of Cleveland.

But the legislation—which passed the state’s Senate earlier this year—also eliminates an Ohio law that lets schools block communist groups from campuses.

“I’m not a fan of communism—I’m against them—and I’m not even a fan of socialism, but they have a right to give free speech and that shouldn’t be infringed,” Republican Sen. Andrew Brenner said earlier this year, according to The Columbus Dispatch.

Restrictive campus speech codes have fallen into disfavor as legal challenges against them have mounted. Last month, a Mississippi college settled a lawsuit by revising its speech code. And on Nov. 3, a federal appeals court sharply criticized a hate speech policy at the University of Texas, reinstating a student-filed lawsuit against it.

The bill now heads to the desk of Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, who is expected to sign it.

Steve West

Steve is a legal correspondent for WORLD. He is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, Wake Forest University School of Law, and N.C. State University. He worked for 34 years as a federal prosecutor and is now an attorney in private practice. Steve resides with his wife in Raleigh, N.C.



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