Home Law FORUM Act will protect far-right extremists to speak on college campuses

FORUM Act will protect far-right extremists to speak on college campuses

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Ohio Statehouse. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

If a state bill becomes law, right-wing media personality Kaitlin Bennett — whose February visit to Ohio University was met with backlash — and other controversial figures’ rhetoric would be protected by university-designated “free speech zones” that restrict protest within select spaces.

State senators voted unanimously in support of Senate Bill 40 — the Forming Open and Robust University Minds (FORUM) Act — on Jan. 28, but the bill still needs to pass in the Ohio House of Representatives and later be signed by Gov. Mike DeWine before becoming law.

If passed, the bill would remove designated free speech zones that some universities across the state have enacted on their campuses. 

The legislation specifically requires universities to allow communist and seditious groups to speak on campus space. A seditious group is a collection of people who rebel against the authority of a state.

After her visit in mid-February, Bennett tweeted that she was going to return to campus with “an army of gun owners for an open-carry walk through campus.”

Bennet previously staged an open-carry gun march at Kent State University in 2018, which drew in hundreds of police officers and Antifa, a radical political protest movement that opposes fascism and other fringe right-wing ideologies.

Ohio U does not have free speech zones across campus, but it does request reservations be made in advance as to best prepare university operations.

Organizations, like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), spoke to a Senate education committee in support of the act because it helps broaden free speech at universities across Ohio.

In 2011, a U.S. federal court ruled the University of Cincinnati’s free speech zones unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge Timothy Black ruled the zones unconstitutional, claiming it violated students’ First Amendment rights.

Ohio Sen. Andrew Brenner, who introduced the 2020 bill, told The Columbus Dispatch, “… in seeing what is going on in other states and other universities across the United States, we felt (the bill) was needed to be brought here to Ohio so we can protect the freedom of speech for students on campus.” 

However, John Greiner, a media lawyer, believes the bill is unnecessary as the First Amendment already protects a college student’s right to free speech.

The legislation was drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization that drafts legislation and proposes it to politicians. 

ALEC has a reputation for being a conservative council that holds annual meetings where politicians become “evangelized” and leave with ready-made pieces of model legislation, according to an investigative report by USA TODAY.

The FORUM Act drafted by ALEC is nearly identical to the legislation introduced in the Ohio Senate, according to Documented, a website that investigates how corporations and councils influence public policy.

Students at Ohio U have not been shy about exercising their First Amendment right to protest, even though at times it has ended in punishment.

On Feb. 1, 2017, around 70 people were arrested inside John Calhoun Baker University Center while protesting an executive order from President Donald Trump’s that placed an immigration ban on foreign nationals from Muslim-dominated countries. The sit-in was dubbed the Baker 70. 

During the protest, students sat down inside Baker and prevented the flow of student traffic through the building, which Ohio University Police Department deemed a safety threat, according to a previous report from The New Political. Students were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing. 

If the FORUM Act passes, students will be able to host protests and speakers on campus, even if their views are extremist. Under the act, if the students hold a protest and the university disbands it, they may file a civil suit in court and may be rewarded at least $1,000. 

In response to the protest, Ohio U enacted three university policies, the “Freedom of Expression,” “Use of Indoor Space” and “Use of Outdoor Space” policies. 

The “Freedom of Expression” policy said that students are able and are encouraged to practice their First Amendment right as long as it does not disrupt important university operations. 

The “Use of Indoor Space” policy allows students to rent out places, like Baker Center, to stage protests, as long as it follows the “Freedom of Expression” policy and does not impede university operations.

Lastly, the  “Use of Outdoor Space” policy prohibits students from protesting in areas like parking lots and roads because their purpose is for vehicular transportation.

These policies and all others that concern students’ freedom of speech are required to be reported to the Ohio legislature within 180 days of the FORUM Act’s passing.

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