The Ohio House is considering a bill that could negate Ohio University’s stance on freedom of expression.
House Bill 88 generally prohibits state universities from restricting the free expression rights of students, student groups, faculty members, staff and invited guests in public areas on its campus, according to a summary by Mitchell Smith, a Ohio Legislature research assistant.
In July 2018, OU President Duane Nellis approved the Statement of Commitment to Free Expression. The policy established rules to regulate the time, location and manner of speech in advance.
It also established rules that prohibit activities that “substantially and materially disrupt important university operations, which often can be determined only at the time of an event,” according to the policy.
Both of those rules apply to both indoor and outdoor spaces and must be “content-neutral, reasonable, and leave ample alternative methods of expression,” according to the policy.
If passed, House Bill 88 would declare outdoor areas of campuses public forums for campus communities and would prohibit Ohio universities from creating “free speech zones,” or designating certain areas where people can and can’t gather.
The bill, which had its fourth hearing April 9, would also require state institutions to report and publish the courses of action implemented with the bill’s provisions, according to Smith’s analysis. It also would require universities to publish the policies about free expression in its handbook, on its website and in the student orientation programs.
University Communication and Marketing at OU did not respond to a request for comment.
The bill also would waive Ohio’s 11th amendment immunity from suit in federal court.
Lisa Voigt, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese at Ohio State University, presented on behalf of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, at the bill’s fourth hearing.
Voigt said in her written testimony that AAUP’s view on freedom of expression is similar to the sponsors of this bill. However, AAUP is opposed to it because there is a “substantial difference between banning an idea and disallowing a controversial speaker that would cause massive disruption and create crows that campus police could not control,” according to Voigt’s testimony.
Voigt said Ohio universities have done well balancing free speech with safety and welfare. She said the bill would make institutions more involved in highly politicized movements.
Tyler Coward, a supporter of the bill, is legislative counsel for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. In Coward’s written testimony, he said the bill would ensure universities can’t isolate student expression to “tiny, out of the way corners of campus.”
Coward said over 91 percent of public universities and colleges that were reviewed in 2018 have at least one unconstitutional policy that restricts protected speech.
OU’s freedom of expression policy requires the university to govern expression regardless of the content of expression, so OU cannot favor one issue over another.
The policy also states that when one group protests, counter-protesters tend to be attracted, and OU is “legally permitted to manage these scenarios to ensure that the groups be able to safely communicate with each other.”
During the bill’s life, six people and organizations have presented that they support the bill, two people or organizations have opposed it and one group is an interested party.
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, or ACLU, was the interested party. In his written testimony, he said the ACLU supports eliminating free speech zones on campuses, allowing spontaneous assemblies of students, requiring students to be informed on their First Amendment rights on campus.
Daniels, however, said the ACLU is hesitant because “in HB 88’s zeal to protect campus speech, it is designed to enshrine into state law much of what is current First Amendment court jurisprudence.”
Rep. Niraj Antani is the sponsor of House Bill 88.
“Ohio has had an increasing number of incidents, particularly with pro-life student and student groups, where speech was chilled or silenced.” Antani said in his written testimony. “This bill will ensure no future incidents occur.”