Free Speech Provisions In School Bill Draw Opposition From ACLU

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — A bill in the state Legislature is looking to strengthen free speech protections at schools throughout Ohio. But it is opposed by one of the nation’s leading champions of free speech.

The provisions are tucked into Senate Bill 135, a larger omnibus bill that deals with educational issues at both the grade school and university levels.

The bill says that schools shouldn’t suppress the speech of students and teachers even if others find it offensive, immoral or indecent. The bill also says it’s not the role of a school to shield its students from this speech. And it says that students and teachers shouldn’t interfere with the speech of others.

The bill comes as free speech has become an increasingly contentious issue on college campuses in particular, with students in some cases shutting down speakers whose views they find particularly offensive.

Republican State Sen. Jerry Cirino said his bill goes further than previous efforts to protect speech for those in the educational system.

“(It) is more focused on protecting students and faculty from both restrictions of speech … or compelled speech by a faculty member or by the administration,” Cirino said.

However, the ACLU of Ohio, which normally advocates on behalf of free speech, opposes the bill. Gary Daniels, the organization’s chief lobby, said their main concerns stemmed from teachers having more freedom in K-12 environments.

“It removes almost all barriers with regard to what a teacher can say in a K-12 classroom,” he said. “And that brings up problems and concerns in regards to indoctrination of students.”

Daniels said he does think there are several areas where the state can help protect student speech in public schools throughout Ohio, but they aren’t addressed in this bill.

“There are numerous ways where students cannot express themselves under the First Amendment in K-12 schools,” he said. “If the Ohio Legislature wants to take that on, that’s great, but this bill doesn’t do that.”

The bill also would require a new process for students to report alleged First Amendment violations and for schools to investigate these claims.

Sara Kilpatrick, the executive director of the Ohio Conference American Association of University Professors, said this process could take away money from more pressing issues at higher education institutions.

“We’re going to be diverting even more funding than we are already from the instructional mission to pay for things like this, so it’s an issue of resources as well,” she said.

Kilpatrick said her organization fears this new process will add to “administrative bloat,” or increased spending on administrators at universities around the state.

“Trying to make a uniform policy that will inevitably create more bureaucracy and create new reporting requirements to the state and so forth is, in our view, unnecessary,” she said.

Daniels said he thinks the free speech part of the bill is important and shouldn’t be swept along in the rest of the bill.

“Take these speech provisions out of this bill and make it its own bill, so that everybody can get a chance to weigh in,” he said.

Senate Bill 135 passed through the Senate last week and is currently moving through the House.