State Senate passes free speech legislation for state colleges


Ohio Sen. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, speaking on the Senate floor on Thursday, Dec. 3. Photo courtesy of the Ohio Channel.

COLUMBUS — The Ohio Senate passed a bill Thursday which will prevent public universities from enacting any policy that “limits or restricts the free expression rights of its students, student groups, faculty, staff, employees, and invited guests in public areas of campus.”

Proposed by Sens. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell and Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act received additional approval from the Senate, who agreed to the amended provisions from the Ohio House of Representatives.

“I’d like to thank my colleagues in the House for voting to uphold the First Amendment and keep free speech on college and university campuses secure,” Brenner said, who has worked on the bill since 2017. “By giving students the tools to not only freely share their own opinions, but also hear opinions that challenge their own, it will only broaden their perspectives and give them the confidence to express themselves.”

Shawnee State University Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Elizabeth Blevins said in a statement that the FORUM Act will not have much impact on the university with the exception of adding another reporting layer.

“Our college campus has always invited and supported free speech and free expression of ideas in our public outdoor areas,” she said. “These are protections that are provided to everyone through the U.S. Constitution.”

Even in regards to SSU humanities professor Nicholas Meriwether’s continued legal fight against his employer, Blevins believes the only change would be the reporting of complaints of that nature within 30 days to the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President of the Senate.

The bill now awaits signing by Gov. Mike DeWine and would present the following changes:

  • Denies the use of “free speech zones” or outdoor areas of restricted speech, as these spaces are public forums.
  • Prohibits the use of security fees placed on students or student groups based on the content of their speech.
  • Public institutions of higher education must submit to the Governor, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the President of the Senate a report within 180 days of its effective date a report which shows the college is abiding by the FORUM Act
  • Extends the “Forever Buckeye Program,” which permits in-state tuition to individuals with the equivalent of a high school degree
  • Removes a 1963 law which allowed public universities to withold permission to use their campus for members of the communist party, people who support an overthrow of the U.S. government, and those whose attendance is not “conducive to high ethical and moral standards or the primary educational purposes and orderly conduct of the institution.”

Opponents to the act saw it as unneeded, these protections already guaranteed by the First Amendment. The original bill from Jan. 28 had bipartisan and unanimous support in the Senate.

“The First Amendment protections are already recognized by Ohio’s public colleges,” said Sen. Teresa Fedor, D-Toledo, on the Senate floor Thursday who was among the nine noes. “They already allow and encourage the exercise of the freedom of expression and speech.”

The Ohio Education Association made similar claims its November testimony, citing how multiple state schools had already signed on to the University of Chicago’s Statement on Freedom of Expression.

“The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching. To fulfill this function, a free interchange of ideas is necessary not only within the university but also with the larger society,” reads the university’s Protests and Demonstrations policy. “Such freedom comes with a responsibility to welcome and promote this freedom for all, even in disagreement or opposition.”

Among the votes in favor, Sen. Terry Johnson, R-McDermott, co-sponsored the bill along with 15 other senators and 21 representatives. In a mostly partisan decision, no Republicans in either body voted against and only six Democratic representatives supported the measure.

First introduced by the Senate Education Committee, Brenner and McColley presented testimony in February 2019 and saw this as a benefit for student groups across the political spectrum.

“These are qualities we all should aspire to instill in our upcoming workers in Ohio,” reads their letter to the committee, claiming a need for students to hear a range of opinions. “To give them the respectful challenge environments will bode to curating a higher level of talent in these individuals.”

Following testimony at subsequent committee sessions was mostly in favor, hearing from such groups as the Young Americans for Liberty, the Ohio College Republic Federation, and individual students from varying state schools.

“As mainstream or fringe, conservative or liberal that some ideas and viewpoints may be, they have a right to be heard under proper and respectful means,” reads submitted testimony from OCRF Vice-Chairman Taylor Armstrong dating back to May 26, 2020. “Senate Bill 40 promotes this belief and makes Ohio an nationwide example for promoting free speech on our college campuses.”

Reach Patrick Keck (740)-353-3501 ext. 1931, by email at pkeck@aimmediamidwest.com, or on Twitter @pkeckreporter.© 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved.