In July 2015, Democratic Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 93, the Campus Free Expression Act. The law reaffirmed Missouri’s commitment to freedom of expression on public college and university campuses.
Today, it guarantees that students and community members can spontaneously assemble in all public, outdoor areas on campus. It also ensures that all regulations on free expression advance a “significant institutional interest” and employ clear, published, viewpoint-neutral criteria.
In January, when Kansas’ legislative session begins, lawmakers should follow Missouri’s lead and adopt a similar measure.
Kansas’ public university campuses are diverse places. Students of all races, religions, ethnicities, genders and sexualities collide in places such as Manhattan, Lawrence and Wichita in a spectacular display of passion and learning. The backgrounds represented on campus are accompanied by a variety of ideas. The diversity of opinions and perspectives at institutions of higher education demand public policy that safeguards free expression.
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Particularly within the context of today’s tumultuous political landscape, colleges and universities should be microcosmic forums in which tomorrow’s leaders of the macrocosm can participate in robust, open debates of our society’s most challenging issues. No university administration should seek to shelter its students from ideas, even if they’re discomforting ones.
Although Kansas State University revised several of its policies and released a Statement on Free Speech and Expression this year, some public colleges in Kansas impose unreasonable restrictions on expression. For example, Wichita State University’s Policy 11.13 requires that demonstrations involving more than 40 people be confined to designated “Limited Public Forums” and limits the number of signs each participant may carry to one.
The Campus Free Expression Act would require that Wichita State revise these rules or demonstrate, for instance, that preventing individuals from carrying two picket signs advances a “significant institutional interest.” Undoubtedly, other colleges would need to take similar actions to loosen restrictions on free expression and maintain compliance with state law.
Under the Campus Free Expression Act, colleges would still be permitted to restrict access to buildings, break up demonstrations that become violent or obstruct pedestrian traffic, and protect other university property. Anarchy would not abound, but college students in the Sunflower State would become freer to express themselves than they’ve been in decades.
Our culture has recently been mired by demagogic leaders and legislative impasse on issues that matter to everyday people. Reaffirming our commitment to free expression in Kansas is an issue on which Republicans and Democrats in Topeka can work together.
Beyond that, if we seek to change the dialogue, we must first open our forums, and our ears, to new ideas. If we yearn to rediscover unity, we must allow our colleges and universities to become great arenas in which starry-eyed ideologues and humble realists alike convene to discuss the issues of the day.
We need to rebuild a foundation of political common ground. In my opinion, free expression is that foundation. Our campuses are a great place to start rebuilding it.
Kansas should follow in the footsteps of its easterly neighbor and begin doing just that by passing the Campus Free Expression Act in 2018.
Evan Steckler is a senior in architectural engineering at Kansas State University and Western Regional vice-chair for the Kansas Federation of College Republicans.