Some state representatives are arguing that Ohio University — or any public college in Ohio — shall make no law prohibiting the freedom of speech.
State Reps. Andrew Brenner (R-Powell) and Wesley Goodman (R-Cardington) are introducing a bill to the Ohio House of Representatives reaffirming First Amendment rights on college campuses.
“We need to defend (free speech) everywhere, but especially in college campuses where you're supposed to have a free exchange of ideas,” Brenner said. “We have some universities enact some policies that have led to some alternative ideas being squashed, and I don’t want to see that happen.”
Brenner said the Free Speech Act aims to ensure public universities in Ohio are compliant with the First Amendment. That includes an elimination of “free speech zones” that are present on many college campuses. The entire campus should be a free speech zone, Brenner said.
“Public universities that are getting large amounts of taxpayers' money, their policies and conducts of laws should be consistent with the First Amendment,” Goodman said.
Goodman emphasized the need for an exchange of ideas at the collegiate level.
“We completely reject that notion that speech or expression is harmful,” he said. “The answer to speech we dislike or disagree with … is to meet it with more speech of what you believe and find to be true.”
OU has faced the debate around free speech on campus in recent years. Last fall, the university hosted a addressing the drawing of a hanged figure on the graffiti wall, which is at the intersection of Mulberry Street and Richland Avenue. The event sparked a debate about what constitutes hate speech and free speech.
“We can all agree that hateful rhetoric has no place on this campus,” David Parkhill, the former OU College Republicans president, said last October during the panel discussion. “But who is to say what is hateful rhetoric? We cannot allow the government and we cannot allow our institutions to start regulating our speech. Once it starts, where does it stop?”
The line between hate speech and First Amendment freedoms is not quite so clear cut. Sarah Wooldridge, a sophomore studying middle childhood education, said she thinks the bill is not a good idea in some situations.
“(Speech) should be limited to keep things appropriate and professional,” she said. “We need to learn how to interact and get our points across in appropriate ways. … We need to learn how to communicate our ideas professionally at our age now.”
Brenner stressed that the proposed bill does not tolerate speech that portrays a clear and present danger, which has been rhetoric ruled upon the U.S. Supreme Court in reference to free speech.
“If someone is causing threat or physical violence, that’s not tolerated and they should be arrested,” he said. “We’re talking speech (and a) discussion of ideas.”
Goodman said the two would likely introduce the bill to the Ohio House of Representatives in the next few weeks, and they hope to pass it through the Ohio House, Senate and governor’s office by next spring.
“Too often we’re talking at each other or past each other,” Goodman said. “We see this as a step toward creating a healthier climate and a healthy dialogue so that young people on college campuses are fully equipped to be engaged and successful citizens of Ohio.”