Kansas Senate panel advances ‘campus free speech protection’ bill

Sen. Ty Masterson, right, R-Andover, urges the Federal and State Affairs Committee to pass a bill that would prevent colleges and universities from limiting free speech rights of students and faculty.

? A Kansas Senate committee advanced a bill Monday that would prohibit state colleges and universities from adopting policies that infringe on the free speech rights of students and faculty, regardless of how offensive some people may find that speech to be.

Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said the bill is intended to prevent what he says has been overreach on the part of student groups and university administrators to stifle discussion about controversial subjects.

“There’s actually been a host of things that have occurred,” he told the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee. “Student sit-ins in presidents’ offices after hours. The country is full of examples. Quite frankly, I think you could do a quick Google search on it and come up with a dozen right off the top, instances that have happened of restrictions of people being able to speak on campus, even in an appropriate manner.”

The bill would require colleges and universities to adopt policies that affirm that students have a fundamental constitutional right to free speech and that the institution is committed to giving them “the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn and discuss any issue.”

It also states that “it is not the proper role of an institution to attempt to shield individuals from free speech, including ideas and opinions they find offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed.”

It would prohibit public colleges and universities from setting up “free speech zones” to limit where protests or debates can occur.

It would also prohibit universities from revoking invitations for guest speakers to the campus based on the anticipated reaction that a given speaker might provoke.

However, the bill also would give institutions authority to regulate the “time, place and manner” where such speech could occur.

The bill is similar to model legislation from a conservative think tank, the Goldwater Institute. Similar bills have been introduced in a number of other state legislatures, including Wisconsin and Ohio.

In 2013, some conservative lawmakers criticized the University of Kansas for not firing a journalism professor, David Guth, over a comment he made on his personal Twitter account criticizing the National Rifle Association in the wake of a mass shooting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.

“The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you,” Guth wrote in the tweet.

Masterson, however, said he did not think that kind of speech should be protected.

“There are crimes if you threaten people’s lives or ask people to be killed,” he said in an interview after the meeting. “You have free speech. You can have Malcolm X saying people are white devils, and you can have crazy people on the other side. Free speech is important.”

The Journal-World was not able to immediately reach Guth for comment Monday regarding Masterson’s characterization of his tweet.

In response to that controversy, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy in 2013 giving universities authority to fire or suspend faculty and staff who violate certain standards in their social media comments.

The Board of Regents are expected to request an amendment to the bill that would allow it to maintain its social media policy.

Some members of the committee indicated they opposed the bill, including Sen. Lynn Rogers, D-Wichita, who said he thinks it would take away too much local control from college and university officials.

Because the bill came from the Federal and State Affairs Committee, a panel that is not subject to the deadlines that apply to most other committees, the Senate does not necessarily need to act on it before the so-called “turnaround” deadline on Thursday for most bills to pass out of their house of origin.