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Stitt signs campus free speech bill

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Gov. elect Kevin Stitt waves to members on the senate floor before the inauguration ceremony of new Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt at the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoma
Gov. elect Kevin Stitt waves to members on the senate floor before the inauguration ceremony of new Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt at the Oklahoma State Capitol in Oklahoma City, Okla. on Monday, Jan. 14, 2019. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoma

Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities will be prohibited from creating “free-speech zones” under a new law.

A bill Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law Monday essentially doubles down on free speech rights already guaranteed to college students under the First Amendment.

Some public and private colleges and universities across the country have established “free-speech zones” on campus that are intended for protests, demonstrations and other expressions of free speech.

But state legislatures across the country are striking down the zones as First Amendment supporters argue limiting free speech to just one area of campus is unconstitutional. The effort to ban the zones has been aided by model legislation put out by the conservative Goldwater Institute.

Under Senate Bill 361 by Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, all outdoor areas on college campuses will be considered public forums and open to free speech.

Daniels and House co-author Rep. Mark Lepak were invited to the White House this year to discuss First Amendment rights on college campuses because of their bill.

Daniels said while there, she met numerous college students who faced threats to their free speech rights because they espoused conservative views.

“We have more and more people who are offended, and they want anything they find offensive to be stopped,” she said. “That’s not how the First Amendment works.”

She said she introduced the bill because of similar incidents threatening free speech on Oklahoma college campuses, but did not offer specifics.

College students and the public will be permitted to express free speech on campus so long as their actions do not break the law or “substantially disrupt the functioning” of the college or university.

Campus administrators, however, will be able to set reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on free speech activities.

Joey Senat, an associate professor of media law at OSU, said the new law is unnecessary to protect free speech on campus because the First Amendment already guarantees that right. But he said the bill could serve as a reminder to state colleges and universities that they cannot corral free speech and expression to certain areas of campus.

“We’ve had courts in other states say there should not be 'free-speech zones' because by definition, if you have a 'free-speech zone,' everything else is not a free-speech zone,” he said.

In a similar vein, Oklahoma State University faced a lawsuit in 2012 when members of an anti-abortion student group were unable to display photos of aborted fetuses in high-trafficked campus areas and hand passers-by pamphlets about abortions. The groups settled the lawsuit in 2014.

The change in law also requires if a person sues an Oklahoma college due to a violation of free speech rights, the school would have 30 days to notify the governor and Legislature with a copy of the complaint.

A lawsuit could be brought within a year of the alleged incident and university employees could be named in the lawsuit, which concerns State Regent Andy Lester.

“I don’t want a law that invites frivolous litigation and I’m concerned that’s what this does,” he said.

The bill easily passed the state Senate, but spurred a heated debate on the House floor, the final legislative hurdle before advancing to the governor’s desk.

Democrats argued the measure could lead to an uptick in hate groups spewing hate speech on campus. Such groups already have the right to espouse their views on campus because of the First Amendment. They also expressed concerns the measure could lead to strained relations between lawmakers and the state’s colleges and universities.

Oklahoma’s institutions of higher education support free speech on campus, but it’s a balancing act to make sure the free speech is done in a way that keeps students safe, said Glen Johnson, the state’s chancellor of higher education.

The state’s colleges and universities have comprehensive policies protecting free speech, but also taking into account safety and security issues, he said.

“I think it’s an indication the Legislature wanted to express their thoughts on the issue,” Johnson said. “I mean, I think we’ve got solid policies on campus that address the issue.”

It was not immediately clear Tuesday whether any of the state’s public colleges have designated "free-speech zones."

Staff writer Adam Kemp contributed to this report.

Carmen Forman

Carmen Forman covers the state Capitol and governor's office for The Oklahoman. A Norman native and graduate of the University of Oklahoma, she previously covered state politics in Virginia and Arizona before returning to Oklahoma. Read more ›

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