Ohio’s Campus Free Speech Act helps build free minds, free people
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The First Amendment is often referred to as America’s first freedom because of the principles that it enshrines. Namely, that government cannot restrict our rights to freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and to petition our government.

As policy makers, our duty is to ensure that these freedoms are respected and protected for all. In my case especially, I must ensure those freedoms are protected for Ohioans.

That is why Ohio State House Representative Andrew Brenner and I are introducing the Campus Free Speech Act. This common-sense legislation is based on a simple premise; that the laws, policies, and conduct of Ohio’s public universities be fully consistent with the First Amendment.

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College is a transformative time for Ohio’s young people as they learn and grow into the next generation of leaders and citizens. A free and open exchange of speech and ideas is critical to ensuring that our students have the most meaningful and impactful education experience in a way that prepares them to be active and engaged citizens in our republic.

Several states in recent months and years have adopted policies on a bipartisan basis to maximize First Amendment freedoms on college campuses. This is not about privileging or advancing one viewpoint over another, or about stifling opinions we disagree with or even find abhorrent. This is about ensuring that Ohio’s students have every ability to freely and peacefully debate ideas, pursue truth, and reject error.

In recent years we have seen a clampdown on First Amendment-protected activities on college campuses across that nation, signaling a dangerous closing of the American mind that only contributes to a more difficult national dialogue. A 2016 Gallup poll found that roughly two-thirds of college student support restricting “intentionally offensive” language, and 27 percent of students support restricting the expression of political views “that are upsetting or offensive to certain groups.”

While Ohio has been fortunate to avoid the madness that has taken hold at places like UC Berkeley and the University of Missouri, there have still been instances of speech suppression here.

Within the last five years, both the University of Cincinnati and the Columbus State Community College were sued and had reverse “Free Speech Area” policies that limited free speech rights to small, designated areas on campus. In the University of Cincinnati’s case, the free speech area made up less than 1 percent of the campus’s total area.

In 2014, University of Toledo campus police suppressed a peaceful protest of a Karl Rove event by blocking protesters from entering the event. The university has since adopted a new free expression policy.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education still finds that all but one of our public universities maintains policies “that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech.”

Ambiguous policies leave the door open for future suppression, and need to be changed to make it clear that protected speech will be given the full protection of the law.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote:

“Truth is great and will prevail if left to herself … she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted to freely contradict them.”

The role of a university is to pursue truth, and as such, universities should value free inquiry above all else. Students only learn when challenged with new ideas, forcing them to apply reason and reconsider beliefs they have previously held out of habit. Erroneous and bigoted ideas can only be defeated by standing them up to the test of reason and debate.

While it is unfortunate that the importance of free speech and free inquiry are being questioned across the nation, this bill presents an opportunity protect it in Ohio. We have a duty to ensure that Ohio’s public universities maintain their truth-seeking purpose, through which they shower countless benefits on students and a citizens alike, making good on the taxpayers’ investment in their institutions.

Wes Goodman is an Ohio State representative (R-Cardington).


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.