Oklahoma Protects Free Speech on Campus

Oklahoma Protects Free Speech on Campus

(Vista Archives)

A new bill that could affect freedom of speech on Oklahoma campuses was read for the first time at the second General Session of the 56th Legislature of Oklahoma on Monday.

House Bill 3586, written by Republican Speaker Charles McCall, would initiate the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act (FORUM Act) on campuses. The bill intends to protect students from discrimination, specifically from religion or belief-based groups.

“We believe Speaker McCall wants to ensure that they will have the atmosphere of civility when speakers are on campus,” said University of Central Oklahoma President Don Betz.

The FORUM Act was initially introduced by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in June 2017. Several states, such as South Carolina and West Virginia, have already initiated similar bills.

The act was formed to eliminate “free speech zones”, which designate specific zones on campus for free speech. Eliminating these zones would allow students to use all outdoor areas of campuses as public forums.

Betz said that the university may have a place where people can gather to have a presentation like a speaker’s corner, but should not restrict the freedom of speech to any particular zone.

“For me, every part of the [UCO] campus is a free zone of speech,” Betz said. “We should be able to talk to each other about any issue anywhere.”

ALEC released a statement saying that the FORUM Act would not punish students for expressing their freedom of speech on campus. It would, however, give the power to sue a university if an individual felt as if their freedom of speech was being interrupted or prevented.

The bill also requires students to be educated about freedom of speech and requires administrators and police understand their duty in those cases. Universities will also be required to develop handbooks or other materials with information on free expression on campus.

“Most of [the bill] is not a problem for us because we have guaranteed opportunity for voices to be heard here, and that’s what they are asking for,” Betz said.

Betz said UCO has had several speakers that students have disagreed with. However, he has never seen any of those speakers interrupted to the point where they could no longer continue.

“There is nothing in that bill that doesn’t really already exist, with the exception of they are trying to get the university to report to the legislature,” said UCO mass communications professor Mark Hanebutt.

Betz also said the requirement of filing reports and preparing publications on free speech issues may be a problem for the university. It costs money and takes time for personnel to prepare.

Hanebutt said freedom of speech on campuses should be protected the most, because it is a place where students learn about what freedom of speech is in democracy.

“I think students should be protected from physical harm, but I don’t believe they should be protected from idea, belief or opinion,” Hanebutt said. “That’s a part of being a college student, that we should expose [them] to other ideas and learn from them.”

Kay Bickham, executive director of Freedom of Information Oklahoma, said she that though she did not have access to the bill, she does not believe it will grant students any additional rights. The Bill of Rights already protects freedoms of speech, press, religion, peaceful assembly and petition.

In the past two years, UCO has been the sight of multiple protests that went uninterrupted by faculty, staff or the UCO Police Department.

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