FILE - Campus free speech

(The Center Square) – At the end of April, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a bill into law that will require all public universities and colleges in the state to survey students on Free Speech by May 1, 2022.

It’s a first step, the legislator who introduced the language in the Senate committee meeting said, to find out what is happening on our university campuses – a first step before the legislature takes action.

Rep. Jack Jordan, R-Bremen, talked of the national problem with free speech on college campuses “across the board,” citing a survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which found that 60% of the 20,000 students at 55 universities who were surveyed said they felt they were not free to express their views on campus because of how professors or the administration would respond.

He also cited a Knight Foundation study showing that of 3,000 students surveyed in several successive annual surveys, a declining percentage of them said their free speech rights were secure and ranked their First Amendment rights as their “least secure” rights.

“This is national. I’d like to work together to see, is it any issue in the state of Indiana?” he said.

The language on free speech was originally in Senate Bill 414, but was taken out in late April and included in a House bill on various education matters, H.B. 1549, which the governor signed into law April 29.

The bill was authored by Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, the chairman of the House Education Committee, with Sen. Jeff Raatz, R-Richmond, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, listed as a sponsor.

It directs the Indiana Commission for Higher Education to prepare three reports and submit them to the legislature by Nov. 1.

The “free speech on college campus report” is to include “a detailed description of each state educational institution’s efforts to recognize and protect the freedom of speech and association rights guaranteed to the members of its campus community under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.”

This report, the bill says, “must include a recommendation on a survey instrument that each state educational institution shall administer to students not later than May 1, 2022, to determine current perceptions of whether free speech and academic freedom are recognized and fostered by the state educational institution in a manner that welcomes expression of different opinions and ideologies with respect to, but not limited to, classes, professors and instructors, peer interactions, speakers, and campus groups.”

The bill also says the survey “must take into account perceptions by a representative sample of students at each campus location.”

Indiana University and Purdue University are the state’s two largest public universities. The other public universities/colleges are Ball State University, Indiana State University, the University of Southern Indiana, Vincennes University and Ivy Tech Community College

Indiana University-Bloomington, the state university system’s flagship campus, has seen several high-profile cases in recent years involving free speech. The most notable was the provost’s condemnation in the fall of 2019 of an economics professor for retweeting a quote from an article that said, “Geniuses are overwhelmingly male because they combine outlier high IQ with moderately low Agreeableness and moderately low Conscientiousness.”

The words were not the professor’s own, and he did not make a comment on them. He only posted the quote, along with a link to the article, which was entitled, “Are Women Destroying Academia? Probably.”

In a statement, Provost Lauren Robel called the professor’s views “racist, sexist and homophobic.” The statement was widely quoted and lauded by the national media, including the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The issue of students and free speech has gotten less notice, but there has been at least one recent case of an IU student expelled for speech – an expulsion which followed a long investigation that began after he argued against affirmative action and race-based preferences on his dorm floor his freshman year. 

In taking a look at the issue of free speech on university campuses, Indiana is not exactly paving new ground.

Many state legislatures have stepped in to protect Free Speech and free inquiry at state-funded institutions.

In Wisconsin in 2020, the state legislature passed a bill requiring public universities in the state to suspend students for two incidents and expel them for three incidents of “violent or other disorderly conduct that materially and substantially disrupts the free speech of others.”

Last month, Idaho and North Dakota both passed campus free speech laws. Idaho’s law, entitled the “Protecting Critical Thinking in Higher Education Act” requires public universities to post compliance with free speech on their websites. North Dakota’s law would eliminate so-called “free-speech zones” on college campuses – meaning that the entire campus would be a free-speech zone. It would also stop universities from prohibiting campus speakers because of their views.