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Ideology versus policy: Campus free speech resolution leads to heated USG debate

The topic of free speech on campus arose during a packed Undergraduate Student Government general assembly meeting Wednesday and spurred a combative dialogue that called into question the nature of the meeting: ideology or policy. 

USG voted to indefinitely table a resolution — a vote neither for nor against it, but instead an agreement to never vote on it again — that proposed to support the Ohio Campus Free Speech Act, a state-level bill said to protect students’ First Amendment rights at Ohio public universities.

The resolution comes during a noteworthy time over clashes about free speech at Ohio State, including the ban on window art in dorms and the denial of a white supremacist to speak on campus.

The bill was introduced by two Ohio House Republicans, Wes Goodman and Andrew Brenner, to ensure universities would set policies to defend free-speech rights, such as eliminating free-speech zones on campus, prohibiting administrators from choosing guest speakers and making the student activities fee optional.

Ohio State does not have a free-speech zone, instead it considers all of campus to be a free-speech area.

In a cluster of debates, monologues and personal testimonies, 10 students from the public, a state representative and more than 40 senators and members of the USG executive senior staff witnessed one of the most heated meetings in recent USG history.

“I am not sure at what point why the topic free speech became political or controversial, nor do I understand why,” said Nick Davis, USG senator and the resolution’s sole sponsor, and a fourth-year in natural resources management. “I think that it’s silly considering that it’s what our country is founded on and it’s a cornerstone of our great country. There’s nothing political about this.”

However, the main divide stemmed from whether the bill — and thus the resolution — was too partisan for USG to add input, or if it truly answered free speech issues with effective policy.

In this meeting, viewpoints about ideology far outnumbered viewpoints about policy.

Senators indirectly made jabs about the bill supporting hate speech, questioned the political affiliation of the sole sponsor and discussed the bill’s “slippery slope.” White supremacist Richard Spencer was used as the primary example for free speech. The general assembly questioned allowing Spencer to speak on campus because some members said it could lead to more political divisive and violent viewpoints like ISIS or other terrorist groups doing the same.

Any of you that have engaged in personal attacks, that is not what this chamber is for. That is not instructive or instructional for this chamber. – Sophie Chang, USG  vice president

USG does not make the decision on who is allowed to speak on campus. Various university entities evaluate requests for campus space and consider possible ramifications of the requested events, including the likelihood of threatening students’ safety.

Those of the public — including Brenner and 10 students — left a major presence in the Senate Chamber’s atmosphere.

At times, the students made comments under their breath, saying things like “because you don’t” believe in free speech; at one point, they were talking loud enough to drown out a senator speaking.

Brenner also spoke to the general assembly — once during the resolution’s opening statement and later during the discussion — to support Davis’s claims on protecting free speech and even used the example that he “may disagree with some of the [Black Lives Matters movement’s] policies,” but that wouldn’t stop him from letting others with different ideas speak freely.

Davis said he was disappointed, but not surprised by the conduct in the meeting.

“I wish people would’ve looked into it a little bit more instead of just voting ‘No’ based on politics,” Davis said. “I really could have done without all of the personal attacks; I thought that wasn’t necessary, but we’re dealing with college kids.”

Davis said the intent of the resolution was to help diversify perspectives on campus and was by no means a push to promote violent, racist or homophobic ideas.

He also denied that the creation of the resolution was spurred by any political group on campus or any outside politicians.

This was called into question when another senator claimed that Davis and Brenner, the state representative, had communicated throughout the meeting.

Though USG is a nonpartisan entity, its members have passed resolutions that have dealt with political issues before. For example, a resolution to support a federal bill to alleviate student loan debt was approved in 2016 or and a resolution was proposed in 2003 calling to withdraw troops from Iraq.

Jake Dretzka, the USG director of governmental relations and a third-year in political science and public management, leadership and policy, said if a governmental policy affects higher education in any capacity, then USG has the right to add input on the matter.

“Talking about political issues is nothing new for USG,” Dretzka said. “I understand why this resolution is getting introduced because, to me, any decision that the [student government] can make has a political aspect to it, whether it’s extremely minor or something as large as supporting a house bill.”

Dretzka and other senators attempted to direct discussion to other policy points, such as the importance of the student activities fee, but they were mostly unsuccessful.

At the end of the meeting, USG Vice President Sophie Chang made one final statement about the general assembly’s conduct.

“First of all, I am proud of all of you for sitting through a long session like this and cordially going through debate, but I will also say that I am very disappointed in all of you,” said Chang, a fourth-year in environment, economy, development and sustainability. “Any of you that have engaged in personal attacks, that is not what this chamber is for. That is not instructive or instructional for this chamber.

“In the future if we have something like this, you’ll be kicked out of the chamber.” 

7 comments

  1. And that’s what’s wrong with EVERY form of gov’t in this country, from student body gov’t all the way up to the Supreme Court, ideology gets in the way.

  2. Republicans are now a cult of dishonesty and destruction.

  3. Its a shame that the state representatives had to propose a bill that merely protects freedom of speech rights contained in the U.S. Constitution to begin with.

    Students who think it is acceptable to silence individuals, who hold viewpoints with with they disagree, need to learn a few things about this country, its laws and its purpose.

    They also need to understand that unpopular or discriminatory views espoused by white supremacy groups, BLM, Antifa (actually fascists themselves) or radical Muslims, to name a few, are best denounced by letting these people express them, thus exposing their own absurdity in the public forum where astute Americans, including college students, do not need anyone to filter a fundamentally bad message or act as the self-anointed moral spokesmen.

    The description in this article of the USG meeting shows the need for this bill in the never-ending fight to uphold constitutional rights that sadly some students and USG members are trying to deny.

    • Well said. What people need to realize is these provocative, discriminatory, hate speech type jerks and organizations thrive on attention and confrontation. They crave the publicity. What we need to do is not give it to them. Stay away, ignore them, don’t report on them, don’t protest. Guess what they will have then, a small group of idiots chanting silly slogans to themselves, they will soon get bored. Don’t give them an ear and you take away their voice, without taking away their right to free speech.

  4. I don’t think people understand what free speech in the first amendment actually means. Is speech restricted legally in certain circumstances? Yes. Are there legitimate safety concerns with hate speech? Absolutely. However, a person cannot be arrested or given legal ramifications for speaking. (Unless their speech induces panic or some strange outlier.) The People can be asked to leave, denied person to speak in certain places at the discretion of the host, or even escorted out of unwanted. However, they cannot be prosecuted for that speech. The point here is that the first amendment clause declaring free speech exists to ensure a diversity of thought may exist without citizens fearing prosecution for holding opinions that may go against decisions made by governments.

    Therefore, this resolution was unnecessary because the Bill of Rights already took care of this one. There is no need to reiterate the Constitution while also limiting the ability of Universities to make decisions on campus events in the name of public safety. For conservatives who seem to want smaller government, this comes as a surprise because all it’s doing is adding unnecessary regulations on what autonomy Universities do or don’t have when it comes to ensuring public safety and otherwise controlling their own space. I don’t know about anyone else, but that sounds like some serious government overreach to me! #BigGovernmentSucks

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  6. “The role of a university is to pursue truth, and as such, universities should value free inquiry above all else. Students only learn when challenged with new ideas, forcing them to apply reason and reconsider beliefs they have previously held out of habit. Erroneous and bigoted ideas can only be defeated by standing them up to the test of reason and debate.” Wes Goodman (R-Cardington)

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