OKLAHOMA CITY – A bill aimed at protecting First Amendment rights on Oklahoma college campuses was signed into law recently by the governor.
House Bill 3543 by Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid, creates a Free Speech Committee within the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education that will be responsible for training college deans and other administrators in First Amendment policies as well as reviewing and handling complaints.
"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 opposite views," Caldwell said. "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."
Caldwell said he spoke to several regents and multiple students about the need for the legislation. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, of 37,000 students surveyed nationwide, less than 1/3 agree their college administration makes free speech policies clear to the student body. Ninety percent of students that describe themselves as "middle of the road" self-censor to avoid repercussions, compared to 91% of conservative students and 81% of liberal students. Only 12% of students felt comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic, and viewpoint diversity among faculty and staff continues to decline. Oklahoma State University ranked 84 and the University of Oklahoma ranked 110 out of 150 colleges and universities for free speech policies.
Under HB3543, the Regents would select the members of the committee, which would then be responsible for creating or approving First Amendment training for college deans, department heads or individuals responsible for dealing with free speech complaints at universities. The content of the training would be up to the Boards of Regents to approve, but it must be done every two years or upon hire or promotion of the affected administrators. The committee also will be charged with reviewing free speech policies and recommending improvements as well as reviewing any complaints filed with the committee and recommending how the university might address them. Policies are to be posted on each higher education institution's website and submitted to the governor, the Legislature, and the higher education chancellor by Dec. 31 each year.
Caldwell stressed the committee is to be advisory in nature and not punitive.
Sen. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville, is the principal Senate Author of the bill.
“This legislation builds on Senate Bill 361, which I authored in 2019, clarifying that colleges and universities cannot prohibit free speech in public areas, so that Oklahoma college students can engage in the free exchange of a wide spectrum of ideas. This is critical to the academic and intellectual integrity of a college education,” Daniels said. “House Bill 3543 will provide a framework for ensuring that free exchange of ideas is respected and encouraged.”