Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) signed a bill into law Wednesday that creates a free speech oversight committee for the state’s public colleges and universities. House Bill 3543 was passed with bipartisan support by the state’s Senate earlier this week.
H.B. 3543 would create the Oklahoma Free Speech Committee to the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, which is the governing agency for the states public higher education institutions. The bill tasks the new committee with reviewing and recommending college free speech policies and training, as well as reviewing complaints from students and faculty who believe their First Amendment rights were violated.
The bill signals a break from current culture war practices by encouraging more free speech on college campuses. H.B. 3543 seems far more consistent with a belief in the importance of free speech rights and culture than either conservative efforts to forbid the discussion of “divisive concepts” and abolish tenure or liberal efforts to demand students and faculty adhere to progressive groupthink.
The bill’s sponsor, Chad Caldwell, (R–Enid) argues that H.B. 3543 would establish an “understanding of just some general concerns, mainly that our colleges and universities are prepared to protect the rights and the free speech rights for all our faculty and staff.”
When writing the bill, Caldwell took inspiration from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a First Amendment organization focused on colleges and universities. Zero Oklahoma schools have achieved FIRE’s greenlight rating, which is given to universities with written policies that protect student speech rights and academic freedom for faculty.
“FIRE is pleased to see that Governor Stitt signed HB 3543,” FIRE Legislative Counsel John Coleman tells Reason in an email. “Creating a committee that will review speech policies of Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities is a positive step forward in protecting and promoting free speech rights for students and faculty.”
“We shouldn’t have a professor worried about getting fired if they say this or that,” Caldwell said. “We shouldn’t have a student that has to worry about, if I don’t take a Republican view or a liberal view that I’m going to get an ‘F’ on a paper. That shouldn’t be something that’s going on at any of our colleges or universities.”
The bill passed the 48-person Senate with only two opposing votes.
In a statement responding to the legislation, the State Board of Regents said, “As public colleges and universities, our state system institutions embrace the First Amendment and recognize the importance of free speech, which is reflected in myriad viewpoints shared through academic discourse on campuses across the state.” The Board continued, “If this measure becomes law, we will follow the provisions to create a process that ensures our institutions continue to be places where the open exchange of ideas and perspectives is encouraged and protected.“