Ohio joins other states in banning college free speech zones

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A bill provides important free speech protections for students at Ohio’s public colleges and universities was signed into law by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. SB 40, sponsored by Sens. Andrew Brenner and Rob McColley, initially passed the Senate unanimously and earned bipartisan support in the House.

With SB 40’s passage, Ohio joins multiple states including: 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.”

The bill prohibits Ohio public institutions of higher education from quarantining student expression into small “free speech zones” and establishes outdoor areas of campus as public forums for campus communities.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States’ holding in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, defines 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.”

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.”