Oklahoma Shoots Down Free Speech Bills

Oklahoma State Capitol Building. (Cara Johnson/The Vista)
Four bills that would have dramatically changed policies governing free speech at college and university campuses across the state are now dead for the current legislative session after failing to garner enough support to advance within the state legislature.
House Bill 3586 and Senate Bills 1014, 1200 and 1202 were either voted down in committee hearings or failed to move forward by the legislative deadline of March 15. The controversial bills established requirements for disciplinary action in response to violations for free expression as well as the times and places free expression could be permitted, matters that the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education say the state’s universities are better equipped to address than the legislature.
“Each institution is better positioned to implement free speech policies at the local institutional level, taking into account the unique culture, population and safety and security concerns on their respective campuses,” said Angela Caddell, associate vice chancellor for Communications with the State Regents.
While institutions such as the University of Central Oklahoma and the University of Oklahoma have been consulted for amendments regarding the establishment of time and place for free expression, some institutions have raised concerns that the legislation would interfere with their ability to adequately respond to such issues.
“As they are written, these bills constitute what I would characterize as a real intrusion into the role and responsibility of the university,” UCO President Don Betz said. “They commented on student discipline, on free speech, on freedom of expression and those are areas of responsibility appropriately housed at the university itself.”
HB 3586, authored by Republican Speaker Charles McCall, would have implemented the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act on public campuses across the state.
The FORUM Act is designed to protect free speech on college campuses primarily by preventing students from being punished for lawful free expression, requiring campuses to report on free speech issues prior to the legislation’s appropriations process and requiring campuses to educate students, faculty and staff on their rights and responsibilities.
Introduced in July 2017 by the national, nonprofit organization the American Legislative Exchange Council, the FORUM Act has already been implemented through similar legislation in states including Georgia, Florida and West Virginia.
Implementation of the act in Oklahoma has remained controversial among higher education institutions, as many universities have cited concerns that the act would limit free speech more than protect it, according to Caddell.
“We have been advised by several of our college and university presidents that a system policy mandated by the OSRHE would not be beneficial to public campuses across the state,” Caddell said.
Like HB 3586, SB 1200 also sought to provide protection for free expression on college campuses, including expressions that the bill termed as “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”
The bill also cautioned faculty members against expressing personal views in the classroom, especially in areas where they have no special competence or training. Complaints for either of these actions could be brought by students or the state attorney general, resulting in lawsuits in which the university could be subject to penalties or fines up to $100,000.
While offering protection for free expression, critics of both HB 3586 and SB 1200 have expressed concerns that such legislation would protect hate speech while limiting counter protests.
Freedom Oklahoma, a nonprofit LGBT advocacy organization, has said that even the introduction of such legislation is concerning because of its implication for restricting any kind of response to discriminatory speech expressed on campuses.
“It seems like they’re trying to hide the ability to stop protest under the guise of protecting the First Amendment,” said Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom Oklahoma. “If you’re protecting the right of speech or expression of one group at the expense of another group, you’re not protecting speech at all.”
The remaining two bills, SB 1014 and SB 1202, would have established disciplinary standards and penalties for free speech violations.
Under SB 1202, students found guilty of interfering with another’s freedom of expression could face at least one year’s suspension and the bill would have superseded any institutional policies on free speech.
SB 1014 outlined the creation of student discipline hearings for free speech violations, including provisions for the court to award compensatory damages, court costs, attorney fees and monetary damages to the alleged victims of these violations.
“Regarding any proposed student disciplinary measures, it is important to note that OSRHE are the coordinating board for the state system of higher education,” Caddell said. “Issues related to student disciplinary action are within the exclusive purview of the individual institutions and the respective institutional governing boards.”
While the bills are currently dead for this session, McCall has said that the state legislature views protecting freedom of speech at the state’s university campuses as an important issue and that legislature intends to revisit the matter.
The establishment of protections for the expression of controversial viewpoints on college campuses has become a national debate following several protests over the invitation of speakers such as Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos at institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley.
UCO was the center of a similar controversy last month when the UCO Student Association rescinded an invitation to creationist Ken Ham to speak on creationism following concerns raised by members of the campus community on Ham’s previous anti-LGBT comments.
Ham was ultimately invited back to campus and presented his discussion on creationism with no major counter-protests on campus, but Betz said that issues such as these highlight the difficulties inherent in these debates.
“What we have right now across the country is a very strong contention, almost a culture war, on what can be said and not said, and do we tolerate other people’s opinions or not,” Betz said. “We’re beginning to see more and more a rejection of the marketplace of ideas and the rejection of other people’s opinions out of hand.”
While UCO has yet to experience a protest over free expression on the same scale as other universities across the nation, Betz did say that UCO will be revising its statement on free expression to ensure that it clearly articulates UCO’s values as a higher education institute.
“As a university, what we try to uphold, is that the freedom of speech is there as a primary and first part of our Constitution because it is that important,” Betz said. “Even ideas we don’t like have to be expressed and then we can contend with those ideas.”

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