Editorial: Free speech bill is not needed

State Sen. Ty Masterson is right: Kansas colleges and universities should be havens of free speech that encourage open and free-flowing dialogue on a range of subjects.

But given that such speech is already protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Masterson’s bill requiring postsecondary education institutions to embrace free speech is unnecessary, and the bill should be defeated.

The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee advanced the bill, the Campus Free Speech Protection Act, out of committee on Monday. The bill would prohibit state colleges and universities from adopting policies that infringe on the free speech rights of students and faculty, no matter how offensive some may find that speech to be.

The bill also 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.” The bill also warns colleges and universities that it is not their role “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’s unclear what prompted Masterson to push the bill. When asked, he spoke generically of problems in other states but he did not provide a Kansas example.

“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.”

In 2013, the Kansas Board of Regents adopted a policy giving universities authority to fire or suspend faculty and staff for comments on social media. Regents are expected to seek an amendment to Masterson’s bill that will allow Regents universities, including the University of Kansas, to continue that policy.

Masterson’s commitment to free speech is laudable, and it’s appropriate to remind the state’s colleges and universities of the importance of free speech. But Masterson hasn’t cited a single Kansas incident that would warrant taking such a step.

The Campus Free Speech Protection Act goes too far, and it does so unnecessarily. The bill should be defeated.