Intellectual Freedom on College Campuses: An Update on Current State Legislation

Academic Freedom, Advocacy, First Amendment, Legislation

The term intellectual freedom has been recently tossed around by state lawmakers to justify new laws targeting college campuses. The recent laws and policy changes mainly target one of three things: faculty tenure, curriculum, or freedom of speech. This post will provide an update on new laws or incidents happening in various states. Many of these bills were introduced in January, February, and March, and their legislative timelines differ amongst states. Many bills discussing curriculum target Critical Race Theory (CRT), whether directly or indirectly. An overview of the theory is provided by Encyclopaedia Britannica. 

Arkansas

Lawmakers in Arkansas introduced HB1218 which targets what information can be taught in public schools, including public colleges and universities. The bill states, “A public school shall not allow a course, class, event, or activity within its program of instruction that… promotes division between resentment of, or social justice for a race; gender; political affiliation; social class; or particular class of people.” If a school is found in violation of the law, the state government would be able to withhold some state funding to the school. Experts believe that this bill would prevent the teaching of accurate history, including abuses of underrepresented groups. They also add that the bill would extend to campus events, such as diversity programming that discusses white privilege.

Florida

Florida State Capitol
Florida State Capitol

Florida lawmakers are currently looking at two versions of a bill (HB 233, SB 264) which seek to “conduct annual assessment on intellectual freedom & viewpoint diversity.” Under the proposed law, each university would collect data on what “competing ideas and perspectives are presented” and publish their findings each year. Ray Rodrigues, the Republican state senator who filed the bill, described that universities which lack viewpoint diversity would be subject to further actions. The bills are vague as to what this means, defining intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity as “the exposure of students, faculty, and staff to, and the encouragement of their exploration of, a variety of ideological and political perspectives.” The data would be formally assessed by the State Board of Education and State University System Board of Governors, in which most members of both boards are appointed by the state Governor. 

Update: HB 233 has been passed and is awaiting signature from Governor Ron DeSantis. This bill would also allow students to record class lectures without consent of the instructor, with the idea that they could then present recordings as evidence of political bias.  

Georgia

Republican state Representative Emory Dunahoo has requested University of Georgia administrators to survey faculty on whether or not they teach about white privilege. Dunahoo is requesting answers to the following three questions:

1.      Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students that possessing certain characteristics inherently designates them as either being “privileged” or “oppressed?”

2.      Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students what constitutes “privilege” and “oppression?”

3.      Are any classes within the Georgia public school system or the University System of Georgia teaching students who identify as white, male, heterosexual or Christian are intrinsically privileged and oppressive, which is defined as “malicious or unjust” and “wrong?”

Professors from across the state, feel that these questions threaten academic freedom and intimidate professors into avoiding certain content in their courses.

Idaho

The Idaho State Legislature recently passed HB 377, which was signed into law by Governor Brad Little at the end of April. The bill targets Critical Race Theory, directly mentioning it by name, by prohibiting it or any of its tenets from being taught in public schools, including institutions of higher education. While Little claims the law protects against “widespread, systemic indoctrination,” executive director of the Idaho State Board of Education Matt Freeman states that “the board has not received any documented evidence of systemic ‘indoctrination’ occurring in Idaho’s public schools or our public higher-education institutions.”

The Idaho State Legislature also cut $409,000 from Boise State University, which is approximately the amount the university spent towards social justice programs. More information related to this new law can be found via the Chronicle of Higher Education’s report.

Iowa

The Free Speech Committee, of the Iowa State legislature, has made various recommendations to the Iowa Board of Regents regarding free speech on university campuses. The Board of Regents approved of the recommendations, and now require the following type of language be added to every course syllabus at the University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and University of Northern Iowa:

Iowa State University supports and upholds the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech and the principle of academic freedom in order to foster a learning environment where open inquiry and the vigorous debate of a diversity of ideas are encouraged. Students will not be penalized for the content or viewpoints of their speech as long as student expression in a class context is germane to the subject matter of the class and conveyed in an appropriate manner.

 Iowa State Capitol
 Iowa State Capitol

This policy change also comes at a time when state legislators are attempting to dismantle tenure.

The Iowa State Senate also passed Senate File 478 in March, which says that public institutions cannot facilitate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training that promotes divisive concepts. “Divisive concepts,” as defined in the file include that “Iowa is fundamentally racist or sexist” and “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Montana

Montana state lawmakers have introduced HB 218, which reinforces the expression of free speech on college campuses and prohibits “free speech zones.” Section 3, for example, of the bill argues that the existence of such a zone implies that expressive activity is prohibited in areas outside of it.

Update: The bill was passed by both chambers of the legislatures and signed into law by Governor Greg Gianforte on April 15. 

Tennessee

The state Senate Republican caucus recently sent a letter to the leaders of public Tennessee colleges and universities after members of the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team took a knee at the beginning of a game. The University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball team also knelt during the anthem on January 7. The letter asks each university to “adopt policies within your respective athletic departments to prohibit any such actions moving forward.” This letter contradicts the Campus Free Speech Protection Act which went into effect in January 2018. Introduced by Republicans and passed with bipartisan support, the act protects students’ full right to free speech, including protests and demonstrations. Republicans have also introduced SB 0969, which would make sure a university’s free speech policy does not impede a student’s ability to express political viewpoints, though the text of the bill has not been released yet.

The Tennessee State Legislature also added an amendment to HB 580, a bill encompassing policies for the state Department of Education. Opponents of the amendment argue that it prevents public schools and higher education institutions from teaching about systemic racism. One provision of the bill would prohibit the teaching of idea that “An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously.” The full text of the bill can be read here, with the relative amendments found in Section 51.

The Nation

As the national voice for libraries since 1873, ALA supports advocates working at the local, state, and national levels to maintain and increase support for libraries, library workers, the communities they serve, and our core values of intellectual freedom and equity, diversity, and inclusion. ALA engages and advocates with a national network of partners to collaborate and strategize with ALA offices and divisions, state chapters, affiliates and grassroots library supporters. Find more State and Local Resources to join a network of advocates working to keep #LibrariesStrong and to protect our core values.

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