Ohio House passes bill designed to protect speech at public universities

Monday, April 19, 1999

Taking aim at college speech codes, the Ohio House of Representatives recently passed a bill that limits the ability of state universities to punish students for their speech and expression.

House Bill 43 provides that a state university or college “shall not adopt or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy subjecting a student to disciplinary action solely on the basis of the student's speech or other expression” if the speech or expression would be protected when spoken off-campus.

The measure, which cleared the House on April 14, also would allow students to sue colleges or universities in state court to prohibit the enforcement of any “rule, regulation or policy” that limited student speech which should be protected.

State Rep. William B. Schuck, R-Columbus, the bill's main sponsor, told the Associated Press that “this bill is about rigorous discourse and free speech at our colleges and universities.”

State Rep. Jim Buchy, R-Greenville, a co-sponsor of the bill, said: “The purpose of this bill is to eliminate universities from squelching freedom of speech. Some universities are punishing speech in the name of political correctness. This bill is designed to allow for freedom of speech and different trends of thought.”

However, the bill lists several types of speech that state universities could still prohibit, including speech or expression that:

  • Constitutes “hate violence.”
  • Defames someone.
  • “Poses a substantial risk of disorder creating a threat to public health or safety”
  • “Substantially interferes with the appropriate discipline … or invades the rights of others.”
  • Is “personally abusive or insulting to the hearer and that is used in an abusive manner in a situation that presents an actual danger that the speech will cause a breach of the peace.”
  • Constitutes obscenity.

Gino Scarselli, associate legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the measure could go further to protect freedom of speech at public universities.

“The bill doesn't seem to extend freedom of expression beyond what is already covered by the First Amendment,” he said. “The bill may not go far enough in protecting free speech at public universities.”

Scarselli criticized the exceptions for speech that “poses a substantial risk of disorder” and “is personally abusive or insulting.” He says these provisions are “unclear” and contain too many undefined terms.

The bill now heads to the Senate Education Committee, which has not yet scheduled a hearing on the measure.