Ky. student leaders petition lawmakers for free speech

Various student leaders representing bipartisan political groups at Kentucky public universities sent a letter demanding that Kentucky lawmakers pass a free speech protection bill.

In a Feb. 1 letter, 18 student leaders, including those representing College Republicans and Young Americans for Liberty, addressed four Kentucky state legislators: Chairman Max Wise, Chairwoman Regina Huff, Sen. Will Schroder, and Rep. Savannah Maddox. The students asked the lawmakers to support “important campus free speech legislation” to protect students’ First Amendment rights.

“Across the country, speech codes have been used against students of all parts of the political spectrum,” the student leaders assert.

The letter pointed out that bill SB 237, the “Campus Free Speech Protection Act,” was “designed to prohibit public colleges and universities from limiting speech and expressive activity with unconstitutional speech codes, including policies that impose unconstitutionally restrictive ‘free speech zones.’”

The Senate passed SB 237 with “significant bipartisan support,” according to the letter, but the “House Education Committee failed to take action on the bill.” The letter mentioned that free speech nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had examined eight public colleges in Kentucky and found that only one maintained policies that were fully in accord with the First Amendment.

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Campus Reform spoke with a signatory of the letter, Sebastian Torres, who serves as a student representative at the Council on Post-Secondary Education.

Torres said he “hope[s] it was a lack of time” that caused the House Education Committee not to move forward with the bill, noting that “last session, the entire legislature was quite busy passing a budget and dealing with pension reform.”

“I hope to see the chair of the House Education Committee Regina Huff take up this bill in the next committee hearing,” the student representative told Campus Reform.

Republican Rep. Savannah Maddox, one of the representatives to whom the letter was addressed, announced her filing of HB 254 “Campus Free Speech Act” five days after the student leaders sent the letter.

“Freedom of speech is the bedrock of individual liberty, and one of the most fundamental protections afforded within the Constitution,” Maddox said, noting that she filed the bill “in an effort to ensure that this protection is preserved and promulgated at Kentucky's public universities.” 

Asked about the future of this legislation, Torres pointed out that “there is a bill filed in the House and Senate” and stated that “there is no reason why this bill should not be passed this session.” 

“I would like to urge students to call their legislators,” he added, “and ask them to publicly support this bill.”

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Lawmakers Huff and Wise did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Kentucky is not the only state considering campus free speech-oriented legislation. Mississippi Republican Rep. Stacey Wilkes introduced MS 1562, which would have banned the creation of campus free speech zones, among other items, but the bill died in committee on Feb. 5. Meanwhile, Iowa's Senate Study Bill 1099, which also attempts to ban free speech zones, cleared the House subcommittee on Feb. 7 and will proceed to the Education Committee, The Daily Iowan reported.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @mstein81