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 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.”