Kentucky Students Lobby for Protection of Free Speech

February 14, 2019 Updated: February 14, 2019

Student leaders from a group of taxpayer-funded Kentucky universities are urging state lawmakers to approve legislation to protect free speech on campus from administrators who inhibit free expression of ideas.

The students say state law needs to protect students from oppressive speech codes on campus, traditionally a place of learning and open discussion, that limit what they can say and violate their constitutional rights. Legislation defending free expression on campus is currently pending in the Iowa legislature.

In the letter sent Feb. 1 to four Kentucky state lawmakers, student leaders at the University of Louisville, University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University, and Murray State University, asked the legislators to advance “important campus free speech legislation” aimed at safeguarding students’ First Amendment rights.

The letter was signed by 18 student leaders, including representatives of College Republicans, Young Americans for Liberty, and the Council on Post-Secondary Education.

“Across the country, speech codes have been used against students of all parts of the political spectrum,” the letter reads.

“They have been used against students protesting capitalism and the National Security Agency. They have been used to silence students who wanted to advocate for gun rights and even First Amendment rights. They have been used against students who wanted to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution on multiple campuses.”

The students are advocating for bill SB 237, the proposed “Campus Free Speech Protection Act,” which they say was “designed to prohibit public colleges and universities from limiting speech and expressive activity with unconstitutional speech codes, including policies that impose unconstitutionally restrictive ‘free speech zones,’” according to a report by Campus Reform.

The Kentucky Senate passed SB 237 with “significant bipartisan support,” the letter states, but the “House Education Committee failed to take action on the bill.”

The free-speech advocacy organization, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), looked at eight public colleges in Kentucky and determined that only one had policies fully consistent with the First Amendment.

State Rep. Savannah Maddox (R) reportedly said she introduced her own bill, HB 254 or the proposed “Campus Free Speech Act,” a few days after she received the letter from the students.

“Freedom of speech is the bedrock of individual liberty, and one of the most fundamental protections afforded within the Constitution,” she said. Her bill was filed “in an effort to ensure that this protection is preserved and promulgated at Kentucky’s public universities.”

Conservatives and more than a few liberals have long complained that U.S. college and university campuses aren’t the bastions of free speech that they used to be.

With the rise of political correctness, critics say a progressive paternalism has taken hold in university campuses, which in recent decades have become hostile to free speech. Instead of introducing new ideas to students, challenging their preconceived notions and letting them develop on their own intellectually, universities have tried to indoctrinate students and push a left-wing social justice agenda, critics say.

Ideas thought of as conservative have been shunned and those who utter them have been ostracized, and in some cases, punished. Conservative speakers have been jeered, silenced, and physically assaulted, sometimes with university police on the scene refusing to act. Even more moderate left-of-center thinkers have been attacked for not toeing the more radical progressive or neo-Marxist line on campus.

Campus administrations have been waging simultaneous wars on pronouns (and they have invented new pronouns), so-called microaggressions, and examples of cultural appropriation. They have insisted that trigger-warnings be provided in advance in case students might be offended by controversial or upsetting subject matter. They have provided what they call safe spaces, which have been defined as places “intended to be free of bias, conflict, criticism, or potentially threatening actions, actions, ideas, or conversations.”

But student activism against speech codes appears to be gradually paying off.

FIRE reports that on a nationwide basis speech codes are in retreat.

Although “far too many colleges across the country fail to live up to their free speech obligations in policy and in practice,” universities are gradually coming closer to embracing free expression on campus. This year, 28.5 percent of colleges surveyed “maintain at least one severely restrictive policy that earns FIRE’s worst, ‘red light’ rating, meaning that it both clearly and substantially restricts protected speech,” but this is down from the 32.3 percent level from last year.