Ohio bans restrictive college free speech zones, enhances protections for student expression

December 21, 2020

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Dec. 21 — On Friday, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed into law SB 40, which codifies important free speech protections for students at Ohio’s public colleges and universities. The bill:

  • Prohibits Ohio public institutions of higher education from quarantining student expression into small, misleadingly labeled “free speech zones” and establishes outdoor areas of campus as public forums for campus communities;
  • Adopts the speech-protective definition of student-on-student harassment set forth by the Supreme Court of the United States’ holding in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which defined student-on-student harassment as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it effectively bars a student-victim from receiving equal access to educational opportunities or benefits; and
  • Prevents colleges from charging security fees to students and student organizations based on the content of their expression or the anticipated reaction to an invited guest’s speech.

“College students deserve to know that the free exchange of ideas will not be inhibited by campus authorities,” said Tyler Coward, legislative counsel at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus civil liberties organization. “FIRE commends the Ohio legislature and Gov. DeWine for ensuring that campus speech rights will be robustly protected in the state.”

SB 40 was sponsored by Sens. Andrew Brenner and Rob McColley. It initially passed the Senate unanimously and earned bipartisan support in the House.

With SB 40’s passage, Ohio joins Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Virginia as the 18th state to pass legislation banning public colleges and universities from relegating student expression to so-called “free speech zones.”

According to FIRE’s Spotlight on Speech Codes 2021 report, approximately 7% of top colleges nationwide maintain a free speech zone, despite the fact that the practice violates the First Amendment. Free speech zones have been repeatedly struck down by courts or voluntarily revised by colleges as part of settlements to lawsuits brought by students, including eight cases in FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project. Since a 2013 FIRE survey of these institutions, the number of schools that maintain a free speech zone has fallen by more than 50%, in part due to FIRE’s efforts.

“Since 2014, FIRE has worked with legislators from all sides to dramatically reduce the number of free speech zones and other restrictions on college students’ expression,” said FIRE Executive Director Robert Shibley. “I’m proud that my native state of Ohio is the latest to join this welcome trend.”

As we have already done with dozens of institutions across the country, FIRE stands ready to assist Ohio colleges as they revise their policies in light of the law’s requirements. This work is performed free of charge to institutions or taxpayers, in accordance with FIRE’s charitable mission.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.

CONTACT:

Daniel Burnett, Director of Communications, FIRE: 215-717-3473; media@thefire.org