- Associated Press - Sunday, March 4, 2018

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Legislation aimed at protecting free speech on Kansas college campuses is facing mixed reviews amid a nationwide debate over how to balance free speech with the schools’ desire to protect against disruptions and make all students feel safe and welcome.

The bill, which won Senate committee approval last month and awaits a full Senate vote, would eliminate campus “free-speech zones” designated for speakers and demonstrations, require that university speech codes not limit student speech and prevent universities from disinviting guest speakers that might be offensive or divisive. Kansas is one of five states considering similar legislation this year.

Republican Sen. Ty Masterson, of Andover, who introduced the bill, said that free speech hasn’t been much of an issue on Kansas campuses. He calls the bill a pre-emptive measure to prevent a “political arms race” in which faculty or students on one side of the political spectrum silence those on the other.

The bill has no enforcement mechanisms or consequences for universities. But Kansas ACLU Executive Director Micah Kubic said it clears up some of the grey area around what colleges can and cannot do.

“This bill makes it clear that universities are, in fact, public forums. That they are publicly supported, taxpayers pay the bill, they are an arm of government,” Kubic said.

While many high-profile events fueling the free speech debate, like protests over far-right author and agitator Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley, or conservative scholar and author Charles Murray at DePaul, have been liberals silencing conservatives, things in Kansas have been different.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit, non-partisan organization, the only record of a speaker being disinvited in Kansas was at Newman University in 2016. Following student outcry, a scheduled visit from Kansas Supreme Court Justice Carol Beier, criticized by abortion opponents over her opinions in several cases, was canceled.

Mark Desetti, a Kansas National Education Association representative, said the bill is an unnecessary overstep, setting the stage for unintended consequences.

“Our concerns about the act are that it just goes too far,” Desetti said. “It takes away from colleges and universities an ability to ensure their campuses are safe places for students.”

Desetti said the legislation is the result of concern among conservatives that right wing voices are going unheard on campuses across the U.S.

“There are some people who believe our universities are just bastions of leftist liberals who don’t want to hear alternative views,” Desetti said. “My experience on college campuses is that nothing could be further from the truth.”

But University of Kansas student Victoria Snitsar said she witnessed fellow students being asked to remove stickers in support of President Donald Trump from their laptops by a faculty member because the stickers were considered offensive. Snitsar, a member of the Kansas Federation of College Republicans, says that while there are few instances of conservative perspectives being actively silenced at KU, as an institution the university is politically biased. Snitsar said that voices like hers need protection.

Brian Lindshield, faculty senate president at Kansas State University, said the legislation wouldn’t have much of an impact on his campus.

“I think a lot of what is expressed in this bill is covered by our policy already, so I don’t think it would change a lot here,” Lindshield said.

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