Free speech is flourishing on college campuses in Kansas.
So at first glance, it’s not clear why there ought to be a law eliminating the “free-speech zones” that are a kind of collegiate Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner for protests.
But then, as a college student put it, “There are no ‘free-speech walls’ in life. Those things just bring out the trolls, when everyplace should be a free-speech zone.”
The law proposed by Republican state Sen. Ty Masterson would also bar schools from disinviting speakers that some consider offensive.
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That’s only happened once in Kansas, at Newman University, which was named for Cardinal John Henry Newman and founded by the Adorers of the Blood of Christ. Two years ago, an invitation to Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier was taken back after she was criticized by campus abortion opponents.
Nationally, the trend of inviting the most divisive possible speakers and then waiting for the apparently sought-after pressure to disinvite them has become a dispiriting ritual.
So while this does seem like another solution in search of a problem, it’s vital that university speech codes not limit student speech.
Masterson calls the bill a pre-emptive effort to get out in front of a “political arms race” of silencing.
While the First Amendment is the most important shield against this problem, Kansas ACLU Executive Director Micah Kubic told the Associated Press that the bill reiterates what some have forgotten, which is that “universities are, in fact, public forums. That they are publicly supported, taxpayers pay the bill, they are an arm of government” and so cannot under the First Amendment abridge speech.
Mark Desetti, of the Kansas National Education Association, has said the law goes too far, and has predicted unintended consequences such as limiting the ability of institutions to protect their students.
But Kansas students seem to need less help than their peers elsewhere in learning to be tolerant of, or maybe even willing to learn from points of view they don’t share.
And the tendency to protect students from ideas is so misbegotten that lawmakers can’t go too far wrong by simply reinforcing First Amendment protections.