Post-Charlottesville, Ohio GOP wants to allow protests anywhere on campus

Multiple white nationalist groups march with torches through the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville on Friday, August 11, 2017.
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COLUMBUS - Two GOP lawmakers want to allow protests in more places on Ohio's campuses– after a controversial demonstration that turned deadly this month at the University of Virginia.

The plan would eliminate court-approved designated areas for protests, called "free-speech zones," allowing more debate across all parts of campus. Universities would be prohibited from uninviting speakers based on how offensive their talking points are. Student fees would have to be distributed evenly to conservative and liberal groups alike.

Rep. Wes Goodman, R-Cardington, and Rep. Andrew Brenner, R-Powell, announced the proposal Tuesday, days after white nationalists convened at University of Virginia's campus and clashed with counter-protesters. Violence ensued, and Ohio resident James Alex Fields reportedly rammed his vehicle into the crowd, killing counter-protester Heather Heyer and injuring several others.

Several states have eliminated free-speech zones –a trend some have questioned after the violence erupted in Charlottesville. Virginia, for instance, recently passed a law that stated universities could not abridge the constitutional rights of students, faculty and speakers. The law had bipartisan support but provided few protections not already covered by the First Amendment.

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Goodman and Brenner are adamant that violent people should be arrested and prosecuted. But preventing groups such as white supremacists, socialists or communists from speaking on campus – or restricting them to a small area – doesn't exemplify the First Amendment, they say.

“We need to have a real debate in this state and in this country that speech is not violence, that expression is not violence, that violence is violence,” Goodman said. "College students should be exposed to ideas, even those they find repugnant and awful."

But allowing debate everywhere could limit universities' abilities to keep protesters and counter-protesters separated – distance that can prevent violence, said Dan Tokaji, a law professor at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. In Charlottesville, close proximity of protesters and counter-demonstrators escalated to violence.

Plus, the U.S. Constitution already protects students' rights to free speech, without a state law such as what Goodman and Brenner proposed. "The question is: Why would you want to mess with that?" Tokaji asked.

That's a concern shared by the Inter-University Council, which represents the interests of Ohio's public universities, President Bruce Johnson said. But he's not too concerned about a repeat of what happened in Charlottesville.

"We have hosted dozens of conservative speakers without incident," he said.

GOP lawmakers across the country have proposed eliminating free-speech zones. Conservative groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, and the Goldwater Institute have provided model legislation to punish those who silence free speech.

There's a feeling among conservatives that universities' liberal leaders are more apt to restrict right-leaningspeech. The students who accompanied lawmakers Tuesday all represented conservative causes such as opposition to abortion. 

“We’ve got a lot of conservative organizations that feel like that their speech is being suppressed,” Brenner said.

The proposed legislation would, for public universities:

  • Eliminate free-speech zones.
  • Prevent universities from uninviting speakers because of opposition or offense. (Think conservative writer Ann Coulter being uninvited then reinvited to University of California, Berkeley.)
  • Make student activity fees optional
  • If fees are collected, they must be distributed to groups neutrally, not based on political affiliation
  • Allows those who feel their rights to free speech were violated to sue the university and its officials in state court.

The University of Cincinnati no longer has free-speech zones. They were eliminated after UC's chapter of Young Americans for Liberty sued the university. In 2012, the group wanted to gather signatures across campus for an Ohio ballot initiative that would have barred unions from collecting dues from all employees in a workplace without the consent of individual workers.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Black agreed: "There is no danger to public order arising out of students walking around campus with clipboards seeking signatures."

Now, UC officials request notice if gatherings will exceed 5,000 people and ask that students keep bullhorns to a minimum while other students are meeting in class. Under the GOP proposal, universities could restrict protests from classrooms, libraries or other quiet spaces.

UC and Miami University officials are reviewing the proposed changes. They have not yet taken a stance, officials said.

Private universities would not be affected.