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Republican 'free speech' bill would save students from professors' 'crazy ideas'

Are the impressionable minds on the University of Minnesota campus getting brainwashed?

Are the impressionable minds on the University of Minnesota campus getting brainwashed? Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

A bill introduced to the Minnesota House of Representatives would mandate that state colleges adopt a policy that guarantees students "a fundamental constitutional right to free speech."

Another part of the same bill would curb the free speech rights of professors, who are apparently attempting to indoctrinate young minds. 

Introduced last week by State Sen. Carla Nelson (R-Rochester) and State Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) at a press conference alongside members of the University of Minnesota College Republicans, the bill would make state-funded universities adopt policies that place a higher emphasis on free speech. 

The bill is meant to codify freedom of speech on campuses, and prevent universities from limiting speech according to Nornes. 

The passage referring to professors' freedom of expression reads like this:

although faculty are free in the classroom to discuss subjects within areas of their competence, faculty shall be cautious in expressing personal views in the classroom and shall be careful not to introduce controversial matters that have no relationship to the subject taught, especially matters in which they have no special competence or training and in which, therefore, faculty's views cannot claim the authority accorded statements they make about subjects within areas of their competence, provided that no faculty will face adverse employment action for classroom speech, unless it is not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed, and comprises a substantial portion of classroom instruction.

That provision is unconstitutional, according to Jane Kirtley, the director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota. Restrictions on speech are constitutional only if they are content-neutral, she said, meaning they treat all speech equally. This bill doesn’t do that.

“I don’t know how that could ever be seen as an enforceable provision,” said Kirtley. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

The primary problem of the legislation, Kirtley said, is that the language is so vague that it could be seen to include any speech that does not fall within the purview of the professor’s field of study.

“If you’re teaching nuclear physics, that would mean you can’t talk about anything other than nuclear physics,” said Kirtley.

The Republican bill could mean that a professor is allowed to explain precisely how a nuclear bomb detonates over a city, but never express whether this would be a good thing or a bad thing.

For professors who teach classes like philosophy and gender and cultural studies, Kirtley said attempts to distinguish between controversial matters, personal viewpoints, and areas of expertise would just fall apart.

“How is anybody possibly going to judge that?” she said.

Representative Nornes said the language of the bill could still change during the legislative process.

A news release by the Minnesota Senate Republican Caucus about the bill frames it as a response to recent events at the University of Minnesota, including last week’s controversy over the venue chosen to host conservative commentator Ben Shapiro when he comes to campus on Feb. 26.

The university faced backlash from the event’s sponsor, Young America’s Foundation, over its decision to host Shapiro at the North Star Ballroom on the U’s St. Paul campus instead of at a larger venue at the Minneapolis campus.

The St. Paul venue for the speaking event hosted by Students for a Conservative Voice, Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, and Minnesota Students for Liberty was chosen due to safety concerns, according to a university statement responding to the controversy.

Last fall, a similar event with conservative commentator Lauren Southern on the U’s West Bank campus drew nearly 200 protestors and resulted in one arrest.

“College campuses have gotten a little out of control,” said Nornes. “If a controversial speaker comes to campus, they have a conniption.”

The bill would prohibit any of Minnesota's public schools from disinviting a guest speaker whose speech "may be considered offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrongheaded by students, faculty, administrators, government officials, or members of the public."

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said the bill falls in line with “a pattern of Republican politicians using the university as a way to conduct a culture war,” wherein college campuses are portrayed as out of touch. However, he said that reputation is not always unfounded.

“There are times in which the university plays right into the hands of its critics,” Jacobs said.

Nornes, for his part, said his belief in the need for legislation is based partly on personal experience.

“We’ve got grandkids that are in college," Nornes said, "and they come back with some really wild and crazy ideas.”