On a voice vote Monday the Federal and State Affairs Committee of the Kansas Senate passed out of committee a sweeping bill guaranteeing free speech on the state’s college campuses. That the Senate feels the need to reassert the First Amendment at an institution designed to be a “marketplace of ideas” is a paradox to be sure, but one hardly unique to Kansas.
The bill specifically prohibits many of the roadblocks that universities have been throwing in front of conservative speakers across the country. If the bill becomes law, universities would be expected to refrain from “implementing vague or overbroad speech codes, establishing free speech zones, imposing unconstitutional prior restraints on speech, or disinviting speakers based on the anticipated reaction or opposition of others to the content of speech.”
Importantly, too, the bill prohibits an institution from charging student groups prohibitive security fees based on the “anticipated reaction or opposition of listeners to speech.” Universities have relied on the unruliness of protestors to discourage conservative groups from inviting controversial speakers.
Senator Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican and bill sponsor, argued that insight can even be “gained from listening to somebody who is completely offensive,” adding, “You gain the knowledge that this is an idiot and we do not want to go this direction.” His was not the most elegant defense of free speech, but there is truth to his argument.
Not all students are keen on seeing the bill become law. University of Kansas graduate student and liberal activist Megan Jones, for one, spoke against the bill. She contended that it is a function of the university to evaluate speakers through peer-review or some other such loaded process. “Sometimes,” she said, “opinions shouldn’t necessarily be given as much space because they’re not based in fact.” Jones also spoke against campus carry so she cannot be accused of constitutional inconsistency.
Some senators were not thrilled by the bill either. Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau offered an argument unique to Faust-Goudeau. Worried that the KKK might come to campus to speak, Faust-Goudeau argued, “My daughter, who plays tennis, now I don’t think I would want the group to come and disrupt her tennis game with their freedom of speech.” Game, set, match!
Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Democrat from Wichita, dangled the predictable liberal bait, “I feel very strongly that free speech is important,” before adding the switch, “I appreciate the intent of the bill, but I don’t think it’s written well enough, and I don’t think we’ve gotten enough information from our universities and colleges to understand how this could impact them.”
It is likely that amendments will be added on the Senate floor, one to exempt professorial social media communications from free speech coverage and another, less likely, to accommodate the tennis game of Faust-Goudeau’s daughter.