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Speech bill a reflection of the times


Two Republican members of the Legislature visited Washington, D.C., last week to hear President Trump defend free speech on college campuses. It’s a worthwhile issue, as speech — particularly by conservative groups — has been under assault in many places across the country.

This hasn’t been a significant problem in Oklahoma, thankfully, and Rep. Mark Lepak of Claremore and Sen. Julie Daniels of Bartlesville want to ensure that remains the case with Senate Bill 361, which earned them their invite to D.C.

Ideally, students and administrators would have a firm grasp of what the First Amendment is, and what it stands for, and that would be enough. But in too many places in recent years, individuals or organizations have been shouted down (sometimes, demonstrations have turned violent) or had their invitations to a campus event rescinded because someone else doesn’t like the message.

The result is legislation like SB 361, which is similar to bills approved in other states such as Arkansas.

SB 361 says the state’s higher education institutions can’t ban free speech in public areas and that those areas will be available for scheduled, organized or spontaneous expression. It also says administrators may set reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on free speech activities.

The bill would require Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities to publicize free speech regulations and expectations in their online and written literature for students. It also would require that schools make sure their administrators, campus police and others understand the policies. They would be required each year to post on their websites, and submit to the governor and the Legislature, a report showing what they’ve done to comply with the bill.

The reports would cite any “barriers to or incidents of” disruption of free speech on campus, what disciplinary action was taken against those responsible, and any other information the school deems “valuable for the public to evaluate whether free expression rights for all members of the campus community have been equally protected and enforced …”

Anyone who felt compelled to file suit over an apparent violation of their free speech rights would have a year to do so. If a school is sued, it would have 30 days to submit to the governor and Legislature a “supplementary report” with a copy of the complaint.

Critics say the bill could wind up letting a government body decide what violates free speech. One concern is that it could leave the Legislature to micromanage, although that is less likely if administrators are forthright in their reporting of incidents.

SB 361 won easy approval in the Senate and the same is likely in the House. The shame is that we’ve reached a place where such efforts are deemed necessary in the first place.

The Oklahoman Editorial Board

The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Kelly Dyer Fry, Publisher, Editor and Vice President of News; Owen Canfield, Opinion Editor; and Ray Carter, Chief Editorial Writer.. To submit a letter to the editor, go to this page or email... Read more ›