- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Free speech advocates are cheering Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s signing a campus free speech bill that will prevent public universities from “disinviting” controversial speakers and open schools to lawsuits in state court for violating a students’ First Amendment freedoms.

The “Campus Free Speech Act,” signed Tuesday, comes as several states look to crack down on university policies they say inhibit a robust exchange of ideas.

“Kentucky’s public universities and colleges are meant to be free and open to the exchange of ideas,” said Zach Pruitt, an attorney for the Alliance Defending Freedom. “This new law helps ensure that public universities continue to be places where intellectual diversity flourishes and both students and faculty are able to engage in the exchange of ideas rather than being censored on campus.”

The Kentucky law says it gives students and faculty the “broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge, learn, and discuss any issue.”

Like the Chicago Statement — an affirmation of a robust free-speech policy crafted by professors at the University of Chicago in 2015 that many schools have adopted — the Kentucky law says schools are barred from intervening in preventing speech acts, even when they might be perceived to be “unwise.”

“The institution commits to maintaining a marketplace of ideas where the free exchange of ideas is not suppressed because an idea put forth is considered by some or even most of the members of the institution’s community to be offensive, unwise, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, or radical,” the law states.

The legislation had passed the Kentucky state House by overwhelming votes earlier this month.

The new law also bans “free speech zones” and administrative permits for “spontaneous outdoor assemblies.” It also creates a “cause of action,” or opportunity for a lawsuit, in state court by allowing damages of at least $1,000 and up to $100,000.

A student whose freedom of speech has been violated previously had been able to sue in federal court, but a state court action was much more difficult.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a watchdog group who monitors free speech on campuses, three Kentucky schools — including the University of Kentucky, Morehead State University and Murray State University — “will need to change or clarify their policies to comply with the law.”

FIRE gave Morehead State University a “red” rating — the group’s worst — for an overly stringent policy on sexual harassment.

• Christopher Vondracek can be reached at cvondracek@washingtontimes.com.

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