Governors in Two States Sign Laws Protecting Freedom of Speech at State-Funded Colleges

P. Gardner Goldsmith | May 10, 2019
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Here’s some grist for the mental mill. In the course of two days, two state governors signed into law statutes intended to insure free speech on publicly funded college campuses.

They’re positive signs, yet indicative of how little respect many people have for free speech. And they present an opportunity to learn lessons about what happens when free people toss their rights into the “public square”.

As Jon Street reports for Campus Reform, on March 26, Republican Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin signed HB 254, a statute entitled the “Campus Free Speech Act”, which bans “free speech zones” on campus (also known as "speech ghettos"). The next day, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed Senate File 274, which prohibits state-funded colleges from denying resources to student organizations “based on their viewpoint.”

Regarding Governor Bevin’s move in Kentucky to sign HB 254, Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for nonprofit free speech advocacy group, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said:

Because HB 254 is now law, students at public institutions throughout Kentucky have a powerful new tool to combat censorship on campus.

And in Iowa, Governor Reynolds’ move serves as the final act in a political play that began when the “woke” University of Iowa targeted a religious group on campus.

The new law in Iowa comes just weeks after a court ruled in favor of the student organization Business Leaders in Christ (BLinC), which the University of Iowa previously de-registered as a student organization becase it required its leaders to sign a statement of faith, which included the phrase, ‘God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and a wife and in the lifelong covenant of marriage. Every other sexual relationship beyond this is outside of God’s design and is not in keeping with God’s original plan for humanity.’

Street expands on the story:

The student organization denied an openly gay student a leadership post ‘not because he was gay, but because he did not agree with BLinC’s bibically based views on sexual conduct,’ as Campus Reform previously reported. The university claimed that the requirement violated its human rights policy and, consequentially, declines to recognize the group as a registered student organization… BLinC later sued the school. A federal judge ruled in favor of the student group in February, ordering the college to permanently reinstate BLinC.

Many on the left side of the so-called “political spectrum” are up in arms because of the ruling and the new statutory back-up in Iowa.

But both cases are examples a phenomenon that even President Trump recognized that same week, and which inspired him to sign an Executive Order to withhold federal research grants from universities that did not insure free speech on campuses. (Though it would have been slightly nicer if he had acknowledged that there isn’t a word in the U.S. Constitution that gives the feds the power to “grant money” to universities for any reason.)

The U.S. Constitution prohibits the Congress from abridging the freedom of speech. But it does not prohibit the states from doing so, and there were many states that had speech laws on the books to the close of the 19th Century. This does not mean one advocates for state speech codes, but if politicians like to swear oaths to “protect and defend” the Constitution, the least they could do is understand what it says.

As things stand, according to the so-called “rulebook” of the US, the states can fund colleges depending on their constitutions, and the feds cannot. But it would be better for everyone if public funding were eliminated from higher education. Get the politics out of it entirely, toss out public colleges, and let private property owners run their own colleges. Then no one has to pay for anything he doesn’t support, and we can see what kinds of speech each college allows.

The very act of extracting tax money to be given to colleges and universities means that some will be forced to pay for the support of ideas with which they do not agree, and Thomas Jefferson already covered that in 1779 by saying:

To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.

The less often that happens, the better, and Americans are being tested on this fundamental ethical principle.

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