Analysis

Ohio now protects free speech on college campuses. Other states should follow suit.

UPDATE, 12/19/20: On Friday, December 18, Governor Mike DeWine signed SB 40 into Ohio state law.

12/5/20: This week, the Ohio Legislature passed Senate Bill 40, codifying protections for free speech on the campuses of Ohio public colleges and universities. Also known as the FORUM (Forming Open and Robust University Minds) Act, the bill passed in the Ohio House with a vote of 65-27. The bill then passed in the Ohio Senate with a 23-9 final concurrence vote. The bill now heads to the desk of Governor Mike DeWine. The governor has 10 days to sign the bill into law or veto it; if he does not sign or veto, the bill automatically becomes law at the end of 10 days.

Senators Andrew Brenner and Rob McColley sponsored the legislation, which applies to Ohio’s 14 public university campuses, 24 public regional branch campuses, and 23 public community colleges. According to Ohio advocacy group Citizens for Community Values, “The bill is in response to a number of lawsuits that have arisen on Ohio’s college campuses over the years due to unconstitutional speech policies.”

Protecting pro-life speech, free assembly, and protests in Ohio

While it does not explicitly mention pro-life speech, this legislation has significant implications for pro-life speech on campuses in the Buckeye State. Live Action News has reported for years the numerous instances of censorship of school-sanctioned pro-life student groups. Some campuses restrict expression to so-called “free speech zones,” preventing meaningful discussion outside of small designated areas. On-campus pro-life outreach often includes displays, pamphlets, and conversations with passersby, which becomes difficult or impossible when speech on campus is restricted.

There are many documented incidents of pro-life flyers being unfairly condemned by college administrators, When pro-life displays are vandalized, school administrators are sometimes slow to act, or outright ignore the crime. Time is of the essence in recovering stolen property and bringing the perpetrators to justice. As pro-lifers sometimes face violent assault, protecting the right of pro-life students to be on campus sharing their beliefs is more needed than ever.

In Ohio in recent years, pro-life student groups have sued to overturn an unconstitutional policy that required “trigger warnings” for pro-life displays. The pro-life student group at Miami University filed the suit after they were required to post separate signs warning people about the pro-life content in their display, which violated the free speech rights of the students. Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Travis Barham, who represented the students, stated, “After all, the only permission slip students need to speak on campus is the First Amendment, and they cannot be forced to post ‘trigger warning’ signs simply to share their ideas.”

According to the Toledo Blade, opponents of the FORUM Act claimed that censorship on Ohio campuses occurred because administrators did not want to “grant a forum to far-right speakers.” There is nothing “far-right” about a pro-life display, and free speech does not allow for such ideological censorship.

In addition to protecting speech and displays on campus, the FORUM Act also includes protecting the free speech expression of peaceful assemblies and protests; prohibits the creation of the aforementioned “free speech zones”; prevents canceling events due to a “Heckler’s Veto”; and prohibits charging security fees to speakers or groups based on the content of their expression or the anticipated reaction from protesters to an event.

Protecting free speech across the country

Currently, 14 other states have legislation similar to the FORUM Act protecting free speech at public institutions of higher learning. The laws have demonstrated an effective means of protecting speech on campus without creating additional burdens or expenses for the universities. The legislation also saves universities significant expenses by avoiding litigation following violations of free speech.

Earlier this year, United States Representative Gregory Murphy (R-North Carolina) introduced the Campus Free Speech Restoration Act, which seeks to enact similar protections for campus speech at the federal level. The bill, which as of August had been referred to committee, would require robust free speech on the grounds of public colleges and universities. It would also require private universities to clearly state their speech policies and protect against ideological discrimination.

Ohio’s FORUM Act is a significant step toward protecting pro-life speech on campus and preventing censorship. “This bill comes at a critical time for students on Ohio campuses. As we see cancel culture grow, it’s more important than ever before for students to have a level playing field,” said Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values. “The FORUM Act creates that level playing field on college campuses for ideas, so pro-life, Christian, conservative, and all students cannot be discriminated against because of their worldviews.”

He added, “I encourage Governor DeWine to continue to stand against discrimination and promote free speech for all Ohio college students by signing the FORUM Act.”

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