A bill intended to protect campus free speech for students and guests could end up restricting free speech for professors.
House Bill 576, sponsored by Rep. Dean Dohrman, R-La Monte, would modify the Campus Free Expression Act, requiring public institutions of higher education to adopt policies on free expression by Jan. 1. Lawmakers discussed the bill in the House on Wednesday.
Dohrman said the bill is meant to encourage free expression, exchange of information and open debate on college campuses. It would also make sure that guests are treated with respect, he said.
“I think it’s important considering the time that we’re in,” Dohrman said.
However, some worry that a portion of the bill would actually restrict speech for professors. Rep. Ian Mackey, D-St. Louis, brought forth an amendment to strike a section of the bill that states that, “faculty should be careful not to introduce matters that have no relationship to the subject taught, especially matters in which they have no special competence or training.”
The bill states that professors would not face “adverse employment action for classroom speech unless it is not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class” and comprises a “substantial portion of classroom instruction.”
The amendment failed with a vote of 49 yes and 92 no.
Dohrman said that section simply discourages professors from talking about things that aren’t relevant to the topic they’re teaching, but Mackey said restricting the speech of professors is contradictory to the overall point of the bill.
Dohrman read from a comment on Rate My Professors, a website where students have the opportunity to comment on their experiences with professors. The student rating the course said the professor gives bad grades if his students don’t share his beliefs. Dohrman did not say at which school the professor taught.
He said this student’s experience is what students might run into if the section of the bill is removed.
However, Mackey said a free exchange of ideas in the classroom can aid in learning.
“What’s wrong with being offended in the context of a college classroom?” Mackey said. “What’s wrong with that? That’s particularly the place where one should be offended. I learn by being offended half the time.”
Rep. Jonathan Patterson, R-Lee’s Summit, boiled it down to students being consumers and school being a product. For the cost of college, he said, students should be getting exactly what they’re paying for, including professionalism from their professors.
Some Republicans disagreed with the section of the bill. Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, said the section also struck him as odd in a bill about free speech.
“I do believe that campus free expression is important, and I do abhor snowflakes on both sides of the aisle, people who can’t stand the expression of viewpoints to which they haven’t been exposed before,” Dogan said.
Reps. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, and Dohrman debated the way the bill could be interpreted.
Merideth pointed out that a section of the bill states that someone can sue “an institution or its agents acting in their official capacities” for violating the bill’s provisions, and asked Dohrman whether that means a student could sue a professor for voicing their personal views.
Dohrman said that a common-sense reading of the bill shows that the professors could be at risk for their employment but not legally.
The bill was expanded by lawmakers. They approved an amendment by Rep. Craig Fishel, R-Springfield, that added the entirety of HB 743, known as the Cronkite New Voices Act. Fishel said there were no changes from the original bill, which prevents schools from hindering student reporting, according to previous Missourian reporting.
Rep. Dirk Deaton, R-Noel, introduced an amendment which would require public universities to appoint an “appropriately related” faculty sponsor to student organizations at universities that require them to such sponsors.
One lawmaker who supported the amendment said it would help in cases like the recent controversy at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, where an organization’s sponsor resigned following controversy over a speaker the group had invited. Without a sponsor, that organization could have been dissolved, but UMKC leadership appointed an interim advisor.