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Ohio bill would ban public universities from charging security fees based on viewpoint

State ACLU and professors group oppose it

Did you know Ohio law lets public universities ban “members of the communist party,” anti-government revolutionaries, and even people who don’t meet their “high ethical and moral standards” from hosting meetings or events on campus?

That outdated statute would head to the dustbin of history under a larger bill that would prevent public universities from squelching offensive or unpopular speech on campus, including by charging security fees based on speaker viewpoint or “anticipated reaction to an invited guest’s expression.”

The Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act, or FORUM Act (SB-40), last week passed the Senate Education Committee and the full Senate, both unanimously, and is awaiting action in the House.

Republican Sen. Andrew Brenner, one of the sponsors, told the Columbus Dispatch that the bill was inspired by shutdown attempts such as the successful violence-backed effort to stop anti-feminist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at the University of Berkeley in 2017:

In seeing what was going on in other states and other universities throughout the United States, we felt [the bill] was needed to be brought here to Ohio so we can protect the freedom of speech for students on campus. …

I’m not a fan of communism – I‘m against them – and I’m not even a fan of socialism, but they have a right to give free speech and that shouldn’t be infringed. There is a First Amendment for a reason.

David-JacksonThe ACLU of Ohio opposes the bill, with chief lobbying Gary Daniels  saying it’s redundant because of the First Amendment and that various provisions are either too unclear or too rigid. David Jackson (left), a professor at Bowling Green State University who represents the Ohio conference of the American Association of University Professors, also warned it would open the door to speakers who “would cause massive disruption” on campus.

Here are some key provisions of the bill if you want to evaluate these criticisms.

It adopts the Supreme Court’s definition of “harassment” in an educational context, a much narrower standard than often found in university codes: “unwelcome conduct that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies an individual equal access to the individual’s education program or activity.”

It bars university interference with “noncommercial expressive activity” on campus unless a person “significantly hinders another person’s or group’s expressive activity, prevents communication of their message, or prevents the transaction of the business of a lawful meeting, gathering, or procession.”

Such behavior must either be unlawful or include “[p]hysically blocking or using threats of violence” to prevent people from “attending, listening to, viewing, or otherwise participating in an expressive activity.” The bill specifies this does not cover activity protected by the First Amendment or its parallel provision in the state constitution.

“Each state institution of higher education” must adopt a policy that gels with the bill’s definition of harassment. They must provide policy materials to students and “individuals responsible for the education or discipline of students” that lay out free expression policies.

The bill defines outdoor areas that are generally open to the public as “public forums” and bans universities from creating “free speech zones” that limit free expression to specific areas of campus. It closely follows Supreme Court precedent on “time, place and manner restrictions,” requiring them to be “viewpoint- and content-neutral” and “provide for ample alternative means” for expression.

Public universities must submit a report within 180 days of the bill’s effective date that documents threats to free speech, “including attempts to block or prohibit speakers and any investigation of
students or student groups on the basis of expression” and disciplinary action that followed.

It must be both submitted to state leaders and posted on the schools’ websites “by use of not more than three links” and made text-searchable. (Public institutions sometimes scan hard copies to post online to make it difficult for users to find specific words or phrases.)

Universities would also have to submit a “supplementary report” within 30 days of facing an action “for an alleged violation of expression rights.”

Read the Dispatch report and bill text.

MORE: Ohio student leaders tried to buy city sidewalk to ban pro-life activism

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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