State Senate rejects Free Speech bill due to its lack of protections against harassment – 2018

Kansas: Senate Bill 340 (2018)

Topeka, KS

In March 2018, lawmakers in the Kansas Senate narrowly rejected Senate Bill 340, also known as the Campus Free Speech Protection Act. This bill would have prohibited the use of Free Speech zones at public colleges and universities. It also would have required universities to pay all security costs related to campus events, including those that feature student-sponsored guest speakers. Critics of the bill claimed it weakened a public university’s ability to protect LGBT individuals from student-on-student harassment.

Key Players

Senator Ty Masterson, a Republican who represents the suburbs of Wichita, introduced the bill. While there has not yet been a major Free Speech incident at a public college or university in Kansas, Masterson told the Associated Press (AP) that his bill was intended to prevent a “political arms race” on campus.

Further Details

In addition to prohibiting the use of Free Speech zones, SB 340 would have prevented public colleges and universities from disinviting guest speakers. According to The Kansas City Star, only one speaker has been disinvited from a college campus in Kansas. In 2016, Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier was disinvited from Newman University, a private Catholic college located in Wichita, after anti-abortion activists launched a social media campaign opposing her invitation. SB 340 applied only to public colleges and universities and therefore would not have affected this incident if it had been in place at the time.

SB 340 also would have prohibited universities from requiring student organizations to pay security costs that stem from a guest speaker’s appearance on campus. Mark Johnson, a lecturer at the University of Kansas, noted that the law would operate as a “cost-shifting mechanism.” He told The University Daily Kansan that “Right now, the University could impose the cost of security, like hiring off duty cops … on the sponsoring organization.”

Though the Kansas Board of Regents did not take a position on this legislation, Director of Communications Matt Keith said that SB 340 would not alter any state university politics. “It primarily reiterates that universities must abide by the first amendment, which they already do,” he told the Daily Kansan. “Generally speaking, no additional measures will likely need to be taken to ensure students’ right to freedom of speech, as state universities already respect and value that right.”

Seconding this opinion, the editorial board of The Kansas City Star noted that SB 340 “does seem like another solution in search of a problem,” while maintaining that “it’s vital that university speech codes not limit student speech.”

The Kansas National Education Association raised concerns about potential unintended consequences of the law. One representative told the Star that SB 340 could limit an administration’s ability to protect students. The bill expressly prioritized the free exchange of ideas over civility on campus. Specifically, it asserted that “although an institution should greatly value civility and mutual respect, concerns about civility and mutual respect shall never be used by an institution as a justification for closing off the discussion of ideas, however offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical or wrong-headed those ideas may be to some.”

If it had been signed into law, SB 340 would have prohibited universities from enacting anti-harassment policies that go beyond federal, state and local protections. While schools are expected to implement a policy regarding student-on-student harassment, the bill defined such harassment as conduct that is unwelcome and “discriminatory on a basis prohibited by federal, state or local law.” According to the Eagle, “the federal government and Kansas have no law barring harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Concerns about the ability of school administrators to protect LGBT students from harassment inspired much of the opposition to the bill. Democratic Senator Anthony Hensley, minority leader in the Kansas Senate, told the Eagle that under the bill’s provisions, schools “can’t effectively discipline students who would harass others because of their gender identity or sexual orientation and I think that is a real big problem.” In turn, Masterson defended his bill, arguing, “until the state recognizes that as a class, why would you allow public institutions to expand beyond what the state would allow?” reported the Eagle.

Davis Hammet, the founder of Loud Light, a Kansas-based organization dedicated to fostering civic participation among young people and minorities, called SB 340 a “pro-discrimination bill.” He told the Eagle that this legislation would create “a really toxic campus climate, a dangerous campus climate.”

While the bill was recommended for passage by the Committee on Federal and State Affairs, it was eventually defeated by a tie vote. Democrats unanimously opposed the bill, while the Senate’s Republican caucus was divided.

Outcome

Tie Vote in Senate Kills Free Speech Bill

Concerns about the bill’s impact on student-on-student harassment policies inspired a 20-20 vote in the Kansas Senate, which effectively killed it. Lawmakers critical of SB 340 noted that the bill would not protect LGBT students from harassment by their peers.

External References

SB 340

Campus free speech bill advances in Kansas Senate, The University Daily Kansan

Do Kansas college campuses really need free-speech zones? The Kansas City Star

Kansas Lawmakers Consider Bill to Protect Speech on Campus, U.S. News and World Report

This bill limited college anti-harassment policies. Kansas senators just killed it, The Wichita Eagle

Newman cancels talk by Supreme Court justice after anti-abortion backlash, The Wichita Eagle

Prepared by Will Haskell ‘18

Uploaded April 2, 2018