Oklahoma is the latest state victory against campus speech codes

May 1, 2019

Yesterday, Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma signed SB 361 into law. This legislation will provide important free speech protections for students enrolled in public institutions of higher education across the Sooner state.

First, the bill abolishes so-called “free speech zones” at public institutions of higher education in the state. This is an important victory for the expressive rights of students currently enrolled in Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities. Oklahoma is the 15th state to ban the use of these misleadingly labeled zones.

The bill reaffirms that expressive activities such as lawful verbal, written, audio-visual, or electronic means by which individuals may communicate to one another are constitutionally protected forms of speech. To avoid any confusion, it goes further to explicitly include “all forms of peaceful assembly, protests, speeches, guest speakers, distribution of literature, carrying signs and circulating petitions.” The bill reaffirms decades of legal precedent — which only allows public higher educational institutions to restrict speech in the open, outdoor areas of campus if the regulation is reasonable, content- and viewpoint-neutral, narrowly tailored to achieve a significant institutional interest, and leaves open other channels of communication.

Furthermore, the state adopted the 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 a student-victim is effectively denied equal access to educational opportunities or benefits.

Overall, the new law will help free over 85,000 students at Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, Cameron University, Northwestern Oklahoma State, Rogers State, and the University of Central Oklahoma from unlawful speech codes. Each of these institutions currently maintain policies that will need to be revised to be compliant with the new law. FIRE stands ready to assist them, and as always, we will do so at no cost.

To ensure that public colleges and universities comply with the new law, SB 361 mandates that institutions make public their free speech policies and regulations in their student handbook, website, and orientation programs. This way, the campus community of students, administrators, faculty, and staff (and their invited guests) have several opportunities to be made aware of their rights and responsibilities.

FIRE is pleased that several state legislatures are taking steps to protect their students’ free speech rights. We are grateful that the Oklahoma legislature and governor have codified these important protections.