COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Ohio State University has doubled down on its commitment to promoting free speech on campus – regardless of its content.
The Board of Trustees recently approved an interim campus free speech policy, aligning Ohio State with a state law requiring public universities to reaffirm the principles of free speech. The policy also creates a process through which university-affiliated people can file a complaint about alleged violations of the policy.
“As a land-grant institution, The Ohio State University takes seriously its role in promoting and supporting public discourse,” the policy reads. “We are steadfastly committed to protecting the First Amendment right to free speech and expression on our campuses.”
Nearly verbatim to the nine-point list provided by Senate Bill 135, the trustees’ free speech doctrine includes promoting Ohio State as a “marketplace of ideas” where speech – regardless of how “offensive, immoral, indecent, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed” it may be – is not suppressed or compelled. Concerns about civility and respect, the policy reads, cannot be used as an excuse to interfere with speech.
Introduced by state Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland), the enactment of SB 135 comes two years after Gov. Mike DeWine signed Senate Bill 40 in December 2020 prohibiting public, state-funded universities from blocking speakers from campus, no matter how controversial, and eliminating free speech zones.
“I have quite a number of complaints from students, current students and students that have graduated … students felt that they could not express themselves without getting beaten down by the professor, or that they were worried about if they expressed their opinion their grades would be impacted,” Cirino said.
He cited a case of compelled speech against Shawnee State University in April 2022, where the school in Portsmouth was ordered to pay $400,000 to a professor who refused to use a transgender student’s preferred pronouns.
An evangelical Christian, the professor successfully argued that Shawnee State officials violated his First Amendment rights by compelling him to speak in a way that violated his religious beliefs.
“Our universities and community colleges should be beacons of free speech – that’s the whole point of an education,” Cirino said. “And whether you agree or disagree with what peoples’ opinions, this should be a place where ideas and so on are discussed freely and without fear of retribution by your professor.”
In 2017, Ohio State refused to accommodate Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who helped lead the deadly Aug. 2017 “Unite the Right” rally at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville – but not because of the content of his speech, university spokesperson Ben Johnson said in an email.
Spencer’s request to speak on campus was denied, Johnson said, because the alt-right figure presented a “substantial risk to public safety, as well as material and substantial disruption to the work of the university.” An attorney for Spencer initially sued Ohio State but later dropped his claims.
A year later, the university allowed the student organization Young Americans for Freedom to host conservative commentator Ben Shapiro on campus, finding he presented no substantial risk to public safety.
Although a proponent of SB 135’s free speech principles – and Ohio State’s new policy – ACLU of Ohio chief lobbyist Gary Daniels said the legislation was unnecessary. As a publicly funded university, he said the First Amendment in both the U.S. and state constitutions prevents Ohio State from compelling or suppressing speech, with some exceptions.
DeWine’s signature on SB 40 achieved similar results by banning public universities from barring speakers on campus, Daniels said, so why double-down on rights that are already protected?
“When people talk about belt-and-suspenders approach, I don’t know what this would be. Belt? Suspenders? You know, it’s just, SB 135, again, appreciate the attention to free speech. But this perhaps had more to do with politics than it did with policy,” he said
In deciding to deny or allow a speaker on campus – or decisions about any other method of speech – Daniels said it often comes as a challenge given the complex nature of the First Amendment and the difficulty in balancing free speech with student safety.
Speech that could be considered hateful, like a Confederate battle flag on someone’s dormitory door, is still protected speech, Daniels said. But speech that could incite “imminent lawless” action, is directed at an individual, is “so harassing and so pervasive” that it prevents someone from learning, is different, he said.
“I can sit here right now and say, ‘Burn the Statehouse down.’ That’s protected speech,” Daniels said. “But if I’ve got a crowd of 1,000 people in front of the Statehouse and they’ve been getting whipped up all day by what I and other people are saying and they’ve got tear gas and they’ve got torches and they’ve got AR-15s and everything else, and I say ‘Attack the Statehouse’ and they do – good luck convincing the court that that’s protected speech.”
Andrew Pierce, president of Ohio State’s Undergraduate Student Government, said while the university must abide by state law and promote the public discourse of myriad viewpoints, the safety of its students is “paramount” at the end of the day.
Whether that be reaffirming its anti-harassment policies, condemning violence or working with law enforcement in cases where safety may be compromised, Pierce said Ohio State must do “everything within its power” to keep students safe.
“The university needs to make sure that proper resources are available and made attainable to students so that safe spaces are created on campus,” Pierce said, “for any speaker that may come.”