An Indiana lawmaker wants to know how safe students feel on the state’s public college and university campuses, but it’s not physical safety concerning him.
Rep. Jack Jordan wants to know if college students feel comfortable expressing their opinion.
An amendment that passed the House education committee last week to Senate Bill 414, an education matters bill, would require new reporting from the state’s public higher education institutions on protections for free expression on campuses and a survey of students to determine how safe students feel in expressing themselves.
Jordan, a Republican from Bremen, said national surveys have found that college students don’t always feel safe expressing their views for fear of reaction from professors or other students. The state, he said, has a responsibility to determine to what degree, if any, the problem exists on its campuses.
“We need to find out if there are issues with free speech on the universities in Indiana and to get a baseline understanding of that,” Jordan said.
Originally, Jordan’s amendment had gone further, calling for determining whether each professor, course, speaker and student group was “conservative” or “liberal” and reporting out the ideological balance.
The proposal raised concerns among lawmakers — including some in his own party — and even proponents of free speech protections on campus.
“The first half of the language is very noble,” said Armand Alacbay, vice president of trustee and government affairs for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. ACTA supports colleges adopting robust protections for free expression on college campuses, which is called for in the first part of Jordan’s free speech reporting language. Each institution must detail its “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 United States Constitution.”
“The other part, about the balance of ideology … political litmus tests on campuses are dangerous,” Alacbay said.
The amended bill was voted out of the House education committee with that language in it but came back last week. Rep. Bob Behning, committee chair, said the House Speaker had concerns about some of the amendment language. Jordan introduced a new amendment, stripping out the “ideological balance” language in favor of a student survey to gauge how comfortable students feel on their campuses.
The new language directs the state’s Commission for Higher Education to find a survey instrument for schools to administer to their students by next May “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.”
While issues of free expression, speech and protest are not new to college campuses – they were hallmarks of the college-going experience in the 1960s and ‘70s – colleges and universities around the country have been wrestling with them anew in recent years as the nation’s politics have become increasingly divisive and polarizing.
States began passing laws attempting to assert protections for these rights several years ago after high-profile protests of political speakers by students that occasionally resulted in the disruption or cancelation of controversial speakers. While the issue has occurred on both sides of the political aisle — controversy broke out Butler University last week over a planned program with far-left social activist Angela Davis — those on the far-right have been frequent targets of opposition.
“Protecting free speech is an important duty and it has to happen,” said Rep. Chuck Goodrich, R-Noblesville, who said he has a daughter at one of Indiana’s public institutions. “It’s one sided right now.”
Some campuses, including Butler, have already adopted policies outlining support and protection for free expression.
Indiana University adopted a free speech policy that explicitly states it “does not limit speakers or visitors to the university on the basis of their points of view or beliefs, nor will the university prohibit the expression of objections to speakers or their points of view.”
“Free speech is a cornerstone of our public institution where free and civil exchange of ideas and academic freedom are paramount,” said spokesperson Chuck Carney. “IU has been proactive in ensuring our campuses are open to a wide range of views.”
Sam Waterman, a sophomore at IU and president of the university’s College Democrats group, said IU is a tolerant place for free expression and protest.
“I’m very outspoken about my political views,” she said. “Generally, I consider myself pretty far left. My professors, while they don’t usually state their viewpoints, have never made me feel uncomfortable for how I view things.”
Waterman admitted, though, that IU tends to be a more liberal place where her views may fall more in line with the majority. She said there have been incidents this year where conservative students haven’t felt the same protection to speak.
In the fall, a flyer was posted around campus that said “academic freedom is under attack,” according to a photo of the flyer published by the campus newspaper, and that some students were not being allowed “to dissent over issues like ‘implicit bias,’ ‘white privilege’” and other right-leaning ideologies.
“A lot of conservative students are not feeling supported,” Waterman said.
The survey would seek to gauge how a representative sample of students on each public institutions’ campus feel expressing their viewpoints. Jordan said it isn’t a “right” or “left” issue but has seen problems on both sides and wants a better idea of how Indiana’s institutions are doing.
The amendments were added into Senate Bill 414, which heads to the House floor for further amendment before a final vote in that chamber next week. If the bill is passed in the House, it will head back to the Senate for the original author to review the changes and either affirm or reject them.
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