College campuses in Kentucky would be subject to new free speech rules under legislation approved by a Senate committee Thursday.
Among Senate Bill 237’s new guarantees are provisions expanding existing “free speech zones,” where students are allowed to demonstrate, to most accessible, open, outdoor areas of campus. The bill also prohibits students and faculty at public postsecondary schools from interfering with the free expression of others.
But one paragraph raised questions for several on the panel.
The section marks out territory in a heated debate currently simmering on a number of university campuses around the country. At issue is whether the practice of uninviting or "no platforming" controversial speakers amounts to a suppression of free speech.
Language in the measure bars institutions from disinviting speakers because the guest's anticipated remarks may be considered “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, or radical.”
Lexington Democrat Reggie Thomas worried aloud about the doors the provision could open, warning, "If you read that language literally, that invites hate speech to come on campuses and be spewed and spoken."
Thomas cited former U.S. Senate candidate Robert Ransdell, who spoke at the University of Kentucky's Constitution Day event in 2014. The guest was removed from the stage after uttering racially-inflammatory remarks. Thomas quizzed sponsor Republican Wil Schroder on whether SB 237 would have prevented UK from shutting down the speech.
Schroder responded that universities would have the "protections... if they anticipate something extreme that is going to place the listening audience in danger."
The sponsor argued the extra safeguards afforded in the bill are necessary to ensure the free exchange of diverse ideas and will not interfere with students' learning environments. A main concern, he said, is that schools don't tuck away free speech areas in spots not frequently traveled.
Schroder reported feedback from three universities, noting that UK has taken a "neutral position" on the bill. UK spokesman Jay Blanton tells WUKY the university doesn’t anticipate the measure impacting the school’s practices with respect to free speech.
The bill now moves to the full Senate for consideration.