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Campus 'Free Speech' Law Shut Down By Kansas Senate

A measure that would ban restricting protests to "free speech" zones on Kansas college campuses lost in the state Senate on Thursday.

An effort by conservatives to protect what they see as an assault on free speech on college campuses fell to defeat by the narrowest of margins Thursday in the Kansas Senate.

The bill — inspired by the canceling of conservative speakers’ appearances at some elite schools across the country in recent years — would eliminate “free-speech zones” designated for demonstrations. Some critics have seen such zones as a way of moving politically unpopular perspectives out of view.

The legislation would also prevent university speech codes, often designed to protect students from homophobic or racist verbal attacks, from limiting what can be said on campus.

It would also ban universities from withdrawing speaking invitations simply because what a speaker’s viewpoint might be divisive or offensive.

The bill ultimately fell on a 20-20 vote. It needed 21 votes to pass.

Republican Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, sponsored the bill and conceded that Kansas hadn’t seen high-profile examples of speakers being silenced. But he’d said the measure would stop that from happening.

Several senators voting against the bill cited elements that, they said, would hamper free speech rather than promote it.

The bill would “prohibit faculty from expressing their personal opinions,” said Sen. Lynn Rogers, a Wichita Democrat.

“It could also prohibit their ability to control inflammatory speech in their classrooms,” Rogers said.

That, he said, could prevent professors from intervening when students are harassed because of their nationality, race or sexual orientation.

“We cannot affirm our students’ ability to speak without restraint and at the same time curtail that of faculty,” he said.

Sen. Dinah Sykes, a Lenexa Republican, said she voted against the bill because it protects the rights of some “while failing to provide those same rights to others.”

She and other senators criticized a portion of the bill dealing with “student-on-student” harassment that excluded harassment based on sexual orientation.

"Under this bill,some Kansans are more equal than other Kansans."

“Under this bill,” Sykes said, “some Kansans are more equal than other Kansans.”

“I cannot support a bill that softens punishment for hateful harassment,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, a Topeka Democrat.

Senate President Susan Wagle, a Wichita Republican, acknowledged that changes were needed to ensure the bill provided equal protection, but said the House could make them.

“It is our intent — those of us who are voting for this bill — to protect the speech of all students, no matter their race, their color, their creed, their gender identity or their sexual orientation,” she said.

"It is our intent ... to protect the speech of all students."

In some ways, the bill and others like it pending in a handful of states, echoed campus debates over “political correctness” from decades before. It was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Violent protests against a planned speech at the University of California-Berkeley led to the postponing of an appearance by Milo Yiannopoulos and the canceling of a speech there by Ann Coulter. Both are provocative speakers who inspire admiration from the right and loathing from the left.

Incidents like those have come to represent what conservatives see as politically liberal campus and academic sensibilities that don’t make room for disagreement, especially from conservatives.

The Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio,  covers health, education and politics. Its stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post. 

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