A GOP bill regarding ‘free speech’ on college campuses passes the Ohio Senate

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — A bill that seeks to address conservatives’ concerns about what they say is a lack of free speech on college campuses has passed the Ohio Senate. Supporters say the bill will ensure there’s intellectual diversity, especially around controversial issues that are identified in the measure. Opponents say it’s an assault on academic freedom.

Protestors sit in the Ohio Senate with tape over their mouths
A group of demonstrators wear black tape over their mouths to protest Senate Bill 83, the sweeping higher education bill that supporters say will address conservatives’ concerns about a lack of intellectual diversity in classrooms but opponents say will quash free speech on campus. [Karen Kasler | Statehouse News Bureau]
The bill was voted out of committee just a few hours earlier, as protestors with black tape over their mouths sat silent in the hearing room.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), said Senate Bill 83 will change the direction of higher education in Ohio.

“If we do not act now, I fear we will continue down the path of servitude to a woke agenda from which there may be no return,” Cirino said in arguing for the bill on the Senate floor.

The bill has sparked protests and drew more than 500 people to submit or sign-up to give testimony — most of it against the bill — in a hearing that went for more than seven hours last month. Cirino noted the stir the bill has caused and said, “This bill isn’t even law yet but it’s already served as an agent of change.”

The bill bans most mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion training except when related to accreditation, licensing and grants. It prohibits faculty strikes and ideological “litmus tests” in hiring and admissions. It bans universities from taking public positions on controversial topics, though they can lobby lawmakers on issues. It clarifies that the ban on financial partnerships with China doesn’t include tuition from Chinese students. And it says no topics are banned, but faculty must allow intellectual diversity to be expressed on specific “controversial issues” identified as “climate policies, electoral politics, foreign policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy, marriage, or abortion.”

Republicans have been supportive of the bill. Sen. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) cited a study from a conservative academic journal that showed the ranks of self-identified liberal-leaning faculty are growing while conservative-leaning faculty numbers are shrinking. McColley said the bill re-centers free speech on students over faculty and creates a non-biased environment, saying “the classroom is becoming forum for the political weaponization by the left.”

But Democrats are outraged. Sen. Bill DeMora (D-Columbus) said Senate Bill 83 will stifle free speech, hurt diversity, and drive away good professors and students to other states. He said it’s also “an assault on workers’ rights” because it bans faculty and workers from striking. And DeMora recalled the last law that made big changes to collective bargaining for public employees Senate Bill 5 was overwhelmingly overturned by voters in 2011.

Minority Leader Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) said there haven’t been many “culture war” bills in the Senate, but “this bill brings that to an end.” She noted one required reading in the bill is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but said the bill prohibits professors from talking about racism and why he was in jail in the first place. And Antonio said she’s heard conservatives embrace the free market, “but yet the General Assembly would come in and micromanage higher education to this level?”

Three Republican senators joined all seven Democrats in voting against the bill: Bill Blessing (R-Colerain Township), Nathan Manning (R-North Ridgeville) and Michele Reynolds (R-Canal Winchester). It now goes to the Republican-dominated House.

A similar measure, House Bill 151, has been proposed by Reps. Steve Demetriou (R-Bainbridge Township) and Josh Williams (R-Oregon). Its nine co-sponsors are some of the most conservative Republicans in the House.