Oklahoma to form committee to protect campus free speech

An Oklahoma bill will establish a committee on free speech to review and recommend improvements to university free speech policies and trainings.

Oklahoma has affirmed its commitment to protecting free speech on college campuses by committing to the creation of the Oklahoma Free Speech Committee.

House Bill 3543 was signed by Governor Kevin Stitt on Apr. 20 and will require the formation of the Oklahoma Free Speech Committee which will report to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education.

"In our current culture, people on either side of an issue say they are afraid to speak freely for fear of recrimination from people with the opposite view," bill sponsor Chad Caldwell said in a press release. "This is especially troubling on college campuses, which should be the exact places where young people should be free to express, challenge and debate a variety of ideas and opinions as a way of formulating their own beliefs."

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The committee is tasked with a variety of responsibilities that largely involve reviewing public school commitment to adhering to free speech standards. The committee will be charged with reviewing the free speech policies and trainings of every public university in the state and recommending improvements.

The committee will also establish a First Amendment training that will be required for university leadership, including college deans, department heads, and any individual tasked with enforcing free speech policies.

The training will be revisited for revision every two years, upon which administrators will be required to recertify through the course.

The committee will also review all free speech complaints filed to determine if the First Amendment was infringed.

In addition, the new policy will prohibit the designation of "free speech zones" on college campuses and will require universities to submit an annual report that details their free speech policies and outlines any barriers that may infringe on free expression.

The report will be sent to the governor, lawmakers, and the Chancellor of the Oklahoma State System of Higher Education, and be made publicly available.

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Caldwell told Campus Reform in March that universities should be a place where speech is not punished.

"Students, faculty, and staff should feel free to express their beliefs at any public college or university across the country without worry of punishment or academic consequences," he stated.

The bill passed with bipartisan support, clearing the House in a 61-22 vote and the Senate 43-2. However, the bill has received pushback from state democrats who allege the committee casts doubt on the role universities play for young Americans.

“I think it’s meant to cause doubt in people’s minds that these campuses aren’t letting our students speak their minds, and they’re not good places for our students,” Representative Trish Ranson told Insider Higher Education. “The implication is that universities are not doing their job. I think that’s wrong, because I think they are, and it’s just another way of chipping away at the reputation of our higher ed institutions.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) praised the bill as "important bipartisan legislation" and affirmed that the organization will be "ready to assist" the committee and any university interested in revising free speech policies "in light of this new law."

FIRE regularly ranks colleges and universities across the country on their commitment to fostering an environment that respects freedom of speech. Currently, no university has been awarded a "green light" speech code rating- indicating that every institution rated has at least one policy that could be ambiguous pertaining to free speech.

[RELATED: STUDY: 98% of MI students attend a university that doe snot respect free speech]

University of Tulsa and University of Central Oklahoma have both been awarded red light speech code ratings, which imply the schools have "at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."

Regardless, Ranson states that she has never heard a complaint from a student or faculty that they couldn't express themselves on campus, leading her to accuse the legislation of being "heavy-handed."

Oklahoma is not the only state passing laws to strengthen protections for free speech.

In March, Campus Reform reported new law in indiana banning university infringement on free speech. Under the law, Indiana universities are prevented from establishing "free speech zones" or discriminating against student organizations because of political beliefs.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp recently signed House Bill 1, also known as the Forming Open and Robust University Minds Act (FORUM), to ban free speech zones from being roped off on college campuses.

Campus Reform has contacted every individual and organization mentioned. This article will be updated accordingly.

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