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‘Free speech zones’ at public universities would be banned under new Missouri proposal

‘Free speech zones’ at public universities would be banned under new Missouri proposal

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Jesse Hall

Jesse Hall and the columns on the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia, pictured on July 28, 2010. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford, elunsford@post-dispatch.com

JEFFERSON CITY — A plan to expand speech rights on college campuses would also warn instructors to be careful about expressing their opinions in the classroom.

The House Higher Education committee heard testimony Monday night on the proposed legislation, which would amend the state’s 2015 Campus Free Expression Act.

“It encourages free expression, inquiry, exchange of information and honest, open debate on Missouri public campuses,” said Rep. Dean Dohrman, a La Monte Republican who is sponsoring the proposal.

The measure would ban public colleges and universities from limiting students’ speaking rights to particular areas of campus — so-called free speech zones.

It would also require colleges and universities to adopt policies on free expression and spells out 13 principles for the policies to include.

One principle cautions faculty not to use class time to talk about issues that are unrelated to the course they’re teaching.

“Although faculty are free in the classroom to discuss subjects within areas of their competence, faculty should be cautious in expressing personal views in the classroom to persuade rather than illustrate or illuminate,” the provision states. “Faculty should be careful not to introduce controversial matters that have no relationship to the subject taught.”

Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said the legislation fundamentally misunderstands how higher education works. When the goal is to teach students to think critically, class discussions will need to be wide ranging, he said.

“At what point are we now putting the institutions and professors at risk of frivolous lawsuits because a student in the class didn’t like how the topic veered off?” he asked.

Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, spoke in support of the legislation and responded to Razer’s criticisms.

Cohn said he believes the plan actually protects faculty. He pointed to language that he said reflects principles of academic freedom from the American Association of University Professors.

Dohrman’s legislation states that no faculty will face “adverse employment action” for something they say in the classroom unless it is “not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed” and also makes up “a substantial portion of classroom instruction.”

“It’s that kind of language that tries to provide a safe harbor for faculty so that they’re not in trouble when they do the kinds of things that you’re describing,” Cohn said.

Civil liberties groups and lobbyists for public colleges raised few objections to the proposal.

“The ACLU strongly supports and actively protects the First Amendment, and the vast majority of this bill is pretty much OK with us,” said Monica Del Villar, who represents the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri.

The ACLU did raise concerns about provisions that would define harassment between students when it comes to disciplining students for speech, expression or assemblies. The standard the legislation sets for what qualifies as harassment is too stringent, Del Villar said.

Paul Wagner, lobbyist for the Council on Public Higher Education, said public universities in Missouri don’t have a major problem with Dohrman’s legislation and aren’t opposing or supporting it.

But he did echo the ACLU’s concerns, saying that the language as written might prevent colleges from disciplining some students for making threats or using racial slurs.

Dohrman sponsored similar legislation last year. It was approved by the House but not the Senate.

The legislation is House Bill 2696.

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