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Conservative Ohio Lawmakers Push "Campus Free Speech Act"

Josh Link/Twitter
A recent rally on the Ohio State campus condemned white supremacists and other hate groups.

Violence during recent rallies at the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Virginia helped reignite a nationwide debate over free speech on college campuses, and when school leaders should intervene.

Two conservative Ohio lawmakers are pushing a new bill that they say would ensure all points of view are represented at Ohio’s public universities.

If you drive near the Ohio State University campus, you might notice a sudden dearth of flags and signs hanging in dorm room windows. That’s because of a new policy that bans the materials from hanging in dormitory windows.

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,” Bellopatrick said.

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.

Ohio State spokesman Chris Davey defends the new rule, saying it’s consistent with the First Amendment as well as the university’s teaching, research, and service missions.

But Ohio State 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 Representative Wes Goodman explains the goal of what’s being called the Campus 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,” Goodman explained.

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. And he says often, they involve conservative issues. For instance, 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 one percent of the campus in terms of acreage,” Baer said.

Columbus State trustees later voted to expand those zones to most publicly-accessible outdoor campus areas.

Republican Representative Andy Brenner says his bill would do away with free speech zones, and other things.

"It prevents hecklers vetoes by prohibiting universities from dis-inviting speakers based upon the potential reaction, opposition, offense or irritation taken to that speaker’s expression,” Brenner says. “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 nondiscrimination policies and free speech so many times those things can collide on campus," Daniels said. "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.