Kentucky needs campus free speech legislation

Sebastian Torres / Guest Op-Ed

At public colleges and universities across the country, students have been prohibited from exercising their free speech rights in open outdoor areas of their campuses because they were not standing in their schools Orwellian 'free speech' zones. Policies establishing these quarantine zones have been used by campus administrators across the country to prevent students from distributing copies of the United States Constitution to their classmates. They have also been used against students who wanted to distribute literature promoting a vegan diet, protesting the National Security Agency, criticizing capitalism, and promoting gun rights. Students and speakers have been denied their First Amendment rights to speak and assemble freely on college campuses.

Universities are meant to be places of discussion and debate within our society. The goal of the university itself should be to act as a public forum in which members of our society can discuss ideas freely without fear of reprisal from university officials. Ideas should compete against each other not be suppressed by the political whim of university officials or by a heckler's veto. Unfortunately, university policies are not creating a marketplace for ideas to be discussed because too often, their policies fail to protect the First Amendment rights of their students.

In Kentucky, there are eight public post-secondary institutions that have had their speech codes reviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE, a national, nonpartisan organization that specializes in free speech on campus, rates hundreds of four-year colleges and universities nationwide. Of the eight public post-secondary schools in Kentucky rated by FIRE last year, only Eastern Kentucky University earned FIRE's highest rating for having fully First Amendment compliant policies. The other seven each had at least one unconstitutional policy.

These ratings should be disturbing to every Kentuckian. They directly represent violations upon the First Amendment rights of tens of thousands of students at publicly funded post-secondary institutions. That is why the legislature of Kentucky must support Kentucky's students by ensuring that Kentucky's public institutions of higher education remain open for peaceful debate. Senator Wil Schroder filed a bill last session that would have stopped public colleges from quarantining student speech with so-called free speech zones and eliminated other forms of unconstitutional speech codes as well.

Thankfully, SB 237 received bipartisan support in the Senate, where it passed with 27 votes. Unfortunately, the bill was not heard within the House Education Committee before the end of the last session. Censorship in higher education, in the form of quarantine zones, threatens the rights of all students. Universities that engage in this and other forms of speech restrictions, undermine our democracy by conditioning students--next generation's leaders--to accept censorship. Kentucky's legislature should not accept censorship at the institutions they fund. Instead, lawmakers should finish what they started last year by passing the campus free speech bill into law when they reconvene.

Sebastian Torres holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Eastern Kentucky University, where he was actively involved in the Student Government Association. Today, he is a law student at the Salmon P. Chase School of Law at Northern Kentucky University, where he serves as the President of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. He also serves as the Student Representative on the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education Board.

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