Education

Oklahoma creates a committee to oversee college free speech

A new committee in Oklahoma devoted to free speech will soon oversee the state of campus discourse at public institutions of higher education. Signed into law last month, a new statute will establish a committee within the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education to monitor the state of free speech on college campuses, respond to complaints and provide recommendations.

The law will go into effect Nov. 1.

Proponents of the law say it will safeguard speech on campus. But detractors say the committee is another foray into the broader culture wars that have seeped into education, arguing that it unfairly implies wrongdoing by colleges and serves as a distraction from real issues.

Outside Oklahoma, the Free Speech Committee has won the backing of advocacy organizations including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which offered lawmakers input on the bill but was not involved in the legislative process.

How the Commission Will Work

Republican representative Chad Caldwell, who authored HB 3543 to establish the Free Speech Committee, said he proposed the legislation not in response to one specific issue but rather out of broad concern about mounting encroachments on free expression on college campuses. He said it not only signals a commitment to free speech but also sends a message to students and employees that they needn’t self-censor when presenting controversial viewpoints.

“A professor shouldn’t be worried about getting fired, or a student shouldn’t have to worry about failing a class or doing poorly on paper, simply because they share a different viewpoint than maybe other faculty and staff, or from the student’s case, if they share a viewpoint that is different than the one that’s held by their professor,” Caldwell said.

Essentially, the Free Speech Committee has four main responsibilities: to review free speech policies, evaluate complaints of censorship, examine the training employed at individual universities to bolster protection of free speech and make recommendations on improving speech policies and training.

Ultimately, the committee will serve in an advisory role and has no punitive powers.

“We wanted to do it in a way that’s not heavy-handed,” Caldwell said. “It’s easy, especially right now, to politicize speech. We didn’t want to do that. We tried to give as much autonomy as we could to our colleges and universities. This is purely advisory. The purpose of this committee is to simply review different free speech policies and make recommendations for improvements.”

The State Board of Regents—which oversees the governing bodies of the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University systems—will appoint members to the committee. Caldwell expects the committee to include representatives from the individual universities or members of the two regent systems, but the bill leaves it up to the state board to decide.

Julie Daniels, a Republican who sponsored the bill in Oklahoma’s State Senate, called the effort “an additional safeguard” for free speech in higher education. She said that free expression on Oklahoma campuses is not “as healthy as many Oklahomans would like to believe,” noting that the committee is a good-faith effort to improve that health.

“Representative Caldwell and I and many of our colleagues truly believe that free speech on campuses is very vulnerable. We want to make sure we have strong safeguards to protect it,” Daniels said.

Daniels expressed concerns that students and employees often self-censor for fear of being canceled or facing other repercussions.

“We are in a situation in our country, where various actions are having a chilling effect,” Daniels said. “And the chilling effect on exercising your free speech rights is, to me, no different than actually violating your free speech rights if you’re intimidated into not expressing your views. Then those who have no respect for the First Amendment rights of their fellow citizens have won.”

Is a Free Speech Committee Needed?

The bills that established the Free Speech Committee passed with bipartisan support. The House passed it first, with 61 votes in favor and 22 opposed, then the Senate approved the legislation 43 to 2.

Trish Ranson, a Democrat who serves on the House’s Higher Education and Career Tech Committee, was one of the 22 representatives who voted against the bill. She argued that the Free Speech Committee adds another layer of government, requiring more work from institutions, and that it sends the wrong message about higher education.

“I have not heard anyone say that ‘I can’t freely speak my mind on campus,’ whether that’s student or employee, and so this kind of seems a little bit heavy-handed,” Ranson said, adding that it unfairly impugns the reputation of Oklahoma’s colleges and universities.

“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,” Ranson said. “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.”

At the same time, it distracts from the bigger issues facing higher education in Oklahoma—such as anemic funding that drives up costs for degree-seeking students, Ranson said.

“We need to make sure that our colleges are supported, and that they are able to flourish, and that we are able to graduate the citizens of our future so that they have the jobs that they need and can live a good life and be good taxpayers,” Ranson said. “And I think we’re losing sight of our goal—how do we improve Oklahoma? And with this kind of stuff, we don’t.”

Several other legislators who voted against the bill did not respond to Inside Higher Ed’s request for comment.

Tyler Coward, senior legislative counsel at FIRE, noted that no public college or university in Oklahoma has received a “green light rating” from FIRE, which signals the highest possible commitment to free expression on campus. To him, that suggests such a bill is needed.

“I think Oklahoma is unique in having this sort of free speech commission in the way that Representative Caldwell authored this bill,” Coward said. “And it is something that other states should consider.”

Given the Free Speech Committee’s lack of punitive power, Coward said he isn’t worried that it will be weaponized as a tool of partisan politics.

In an emailed statement, University of Oklahoma spokesperson Mackenzie Scheer wrote, “As a public research university where the free exchange of ideas is celebrated, OU is fundamentally committed to upholding First Amendment freedoms. The university looks forward to continuing our work in partnership with the newly created Oklahoma Free Speech Committee.”

Oklahoma State University struck a similar tone in its response.

“Oklahoma State University values the constitutional right of free expression enshrined in the First Amendment,” spokesperson Shannon Rigsby said by email. “We recognize free speech is a principle of democracy. The open exchange of different ideas and viewpoints on our campuses promote inquisitiveness and curiosity, and lead to knowledge and scientific discoveries. We believe it is a vital and worthwhile endeavor to protect free speech. We will adhere to the provisions of the new law and protect the right to think and speak openly on our campuses.”

The Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, which will be home to the committee, also provided an emailed response.

“As public colleges and universities, our state system institutions embrace the First Amendment and recognize the importance of free speech, which is reflected in myriad viewpoints shared through academic discourse on campuses across the state. We will follow the provisions of the law to create a process that ensures our institutions continue to be places where the open exchange of ideas and perspectives is encouraged and protected,” state regents spokesperson Angela Caddell wrote in a statement.

Caldwell said that if colleges spurn the recommendations that come out of the new committee, the Legislature may get involved. But he hopes that’s a last resort.

“I hope all of our university presidents are dedicated to promoting free speech on campus,” Caldwell said. “If they’re not, then when the changes need to be made, my first choice would be that they will be organic and that they would choose to make those changes on their own. And if they’re not, then we can get with the Legislature and go to some other avenues down that road.”

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