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As Israel-Hamas War sparks campus protests, Oklahoma higher education officials take free speech training

Brandee Hancock, chief legal officer at Oklahoma State University, Andy Lester, an attorney and former state regent, and Mackenzie Wilfong, general counsel at Tulsa Community College, discuss free speech during a training program hosted by the Oklahoma Free Speech Committee at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond on Thursday, April 11, 2024.
Ted Streuli
Oklahoma Watch
Brandee Hancock, chief legal officer at Oklahoma State University, Andy Lester, an attorney and former state regent, and Mackenzie Wilfong, general counsel at Tulsa Community College, discuss free speech during a training program hosted by the Oklahoma Free Speech Committee at the University of Central Oklahoma in Edmond on Thursday, April 11, 2024.

A traveling campus preacher at the University of Central Oklahoma wearing a hate-filled sign and yelling at students. Competing protests about Palestine and Israel at the University of Oklahoma. Hecklers trying to shout down an appearance by State Superintendent Ryan Walters at Oklahoma State University.

Those are just a few examples of recent events on Oklahoma college campuses covered by free speech laws. But as social media amplifies political polarization, making sure campuses continue to be centers of robust discussion and peaceful protests without trampling on individual rights remains a tricky balancing act for those in academia.

Oklahoma in 2022 established one of the first free speech committees in the nation for its public higher education institutions. The Free Speech Committee, an advisory body under the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education, came from House Bill 3543 by Rep. Chad Caldwell, R-Enid.

The nine-member committee reviews campus free speech policies, develops training programs and serves as a clearinghouse for free speech complaints. It meets quarterly and held its first training session this month at UCO. About 300 deans, associate deans and department heads from across the state attended.

Caldwell said the law left the composition of the committee up to the regents, who themselves are appointed by the governor to nine-year terms. That’s a departure from most legislatively created boards or commissions, which typically have at least some appointees from the House and Senate leaders.

“It’s not a heavy-handed approach,” said Caldwell, who is one of two lawmakers appointed by regents to the Free Speech Committee along with Democratic Sen. Kay Floyd of Oklahoma City. “I’m not interested in being the free speech police. The government and the Legislature should not have that role for obvious reasons.”

Caldwell said it’s always a challenge to deal with offensive but protected speech, especially on college campuses.

“People want free speech when it agrees with their own viewpoint, but with someone of the opposing view, people aren’t always so quick to support that free speech right,” he said in an interview. “If you’re not willing to stand up and protect the speech of the people you don’t agree with, you can’t really expect that protection for your own speech, because then it will just depend on who is in charge at that time.”

Attorney Andy Lester, chairman of the Free Speech Committee and a former regent, said free expression is enshrined in both the U.S. and state constitutions. Encouraging critical thinking is a key component of higher education, he said.

“Critical thinking comes about not by avoiding challenges or disagreements, but by encouraging free inquiry, free debate and free thought,” Lester said at the April 11 training session. “Yet many on contemporary college campuses around the country appear to be turning their backs on freedom of expression, which I find to be quite tragic. We can, and we must, make our campuses welcoming places for the civil, respectful discussion of ideas.”

Lester said colleges and universities retain the power to restrict the time, place and manner of speech on campus to ensure it doesn’t interrupt ordinary educational activities. They also can restrict speech that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment or falsely defames a person.

“To put it plainly, classes must go on,” Lester said. “But these are narrow exceptions to the general policies of freedom of expression.”

Regent and former House Speaker Jeff Hickman told attendees the goal of the free speech training was to make sure Oklahoma colleges and universities are making news for the right reasons, not because they botched a response to a free speech issue or a campus protest.

“When you have 18-year-olds make different judgment calls than we would hope, those things are going to end up in the news,” Hickman said. “Our hope is the institution is not the news because you are equipped with what you need to follow the law.”

James Davenport, associate dean for social sciences in the Liberal Arts & Sciences division at Rose State College, said he hasn’t seen any efforts on his campus in Midwest City to restrict student or faculty speech.

“I’ve expressed my viewpoints on a lot of stuff, very publicly, and I’ve never had administration or other faculty come and say, ‘Hey, we think you shouldn’t say that,’ or try to block me professionally in some way because of it,” Davenport said.

Davenport, who is a member of the Libertarian Party, said he has seen a broader leftward shift politically among faculty in the past few decades. But he said it's impossible to mandate ideological diversity among faculty, an effort being tried in states like Indiana.

“Any time you develop any type of monoculture, you’re leaving out points of view that can better inform students, faculty and the community at large about issues,” Davenport said. “It’s basically a type of groupthink where we all see things the same way and we never ask questions that somebody from another perspective might ask to better inform us. It’s really a cultural issue within academia itself.”

Davenport said junior academics in Oklahoma who haven’t yet earned tenure are getting hit by both sides in the broader culture wars. Some may be afraid to say anything controversial out of fear of how it might affect their academic career or draw attention from lawmakers or others looking for the next professor to brand as a communist or socialist or terrorist.

“It’s not fair to those folks, and it’s also not fair to the mission of the university of generating knowledge and the widespread views of multiple perspectives,” Davenport said. “It’s easy to be pro-free speech when the speech being uttered is speech you agree with or the speech being censored is speech you agree with. It’s a lot harder to be pro-free speech when the speech is something you absolutely oppose.”

Campus protests have long history

College campuses have been at the frontlines of free speech debates, protests and activism for decades, from the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War protests to calls to end apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s and the police killing of George Floyd in 2020. In the past six months, numerous college campuses across the country have been roiled by protests over the war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas.

Recent controversies in Oklahoma include a video of racist chants by members of an OU fraternity on a bus and two OU students posting blackface videos on social media. Two fraternity members in the bus video withdrew from the university, although multiple reports at the time said they were expelled. The students involved in the blackface video voluntarily withdrew, and the university did not take any punitive action.

In 2022, Oklahoma Christian University fired a tenured professor after he hosted a guest speaker in class who used explicit language. The private university said some students complained about the language, which it said went against its policies and values. The professor sued OC, and the case is now before the Oklahoma Supreme Court on a narrow issue of whether his termination for gross misconduct was covered by the arbitration terms of his employment contract. The university’s attorneys said the case is not about academic freedom but is instead an employment dispute.

In February, OU campus police responded to a suspicious package and nearby buildings were evacuated for several hours as police investigated. It was later discovered to be a protest sign over the Israel-Hamas war along with a trash bag of rotten meat and other objects. Police said it was an example of protected speech involving “protest art” and didn’t pursue charges against the person who admitted placing it on campus.

In Stillwater, Oklahoma State University this month settled a lawsuit over its harassment and computer-use policies, which some students said chilled conservative speech. As part of a settlement in federal court, OSU must also shut its bias-response team. A group called Speech First sued the university in January 2023 over its policies, alleging they constituted vague and overbroad restrictions on constitutionally protected speech.

“We are excited to announce that OSU will be eliminating their insidious bias reporting system that told students to anonymously report on one another for ‘bias,’ they will have to rewrite their harassment policy to include important speech protections so that students can no longer be punished for merely expressing their views, and we have secured a change to their computer policy so that it no longer targets the protected political speech of students,” Speech First Executive Director Cherise Trump said in a press release.

Ensuring Civil Discourse

Caldwell said colleges and universities should not be echo chambers. Ensuring civil discourse on campus will help students navigate the transition between young adulthood and becoming an adult, he said.

“As a student, you should go to college expecting your ideas to be challenged,” Caldwell said. “Unfortunately, some in our society, and in higher ed, enforce this idea that words are violence and you have the right never to be offended. An important part of free speech is respecting the viewpoints of others enough to hear them and be heard.”

Joseph Thai, a constitutional law expert and presidential professor at OU’s College of Law, said the law guarantees freedom of speech, but students, faculty, staff and administrators have different rules and levels of protection on campus.

“The protection varies depending on the context and on the position,” said Thai, who was the keynote speaker at the training session at UCO. “The First Amendment does not restrain private actors like private universities. But most large private universities have adopted free speech principles.”

Restrictions on the content or viewpoint of speech would likely fall afoul of the First Amendment, Thai said. But universities can impose reasonable restrictions to safeguard typical campus activities in classrooms or offices if they apply evenly to all groups and are content-neutral.

“Speech can be curated to make sure it doesn’t devolve into chaos,” Thai said. “But viewpoint-based restrictions, even in classrooms, are typically invalid.”

Thai said hate speech, including racist speech, is protected by the First Amendment unless it includes incitement, true threats or words that in context would immediately provoke a physical response.

“Hate speech sometimes is a form of fighting words, a true threat or incitement, and can be disciplined without violating the First Amendment,” he said. “Racial slurs hurled at someone else in a face-to-face debate would not be protected speech in that context because it would be a fighting word. On the other hand, racial slurs in rap music played at a party or on your iPhone are probably protected speech in most contexts.”

Hickman said he hopes the Free Speech Committee will be a resource for everyone at Oklahoma’s public colleges and universities. So far, the committee has not received any complaints.

“Ultimately, the Free Speech Committee is a pressure-relief valve for the institutions,” Hickman said. “If someone on your campus doesn’t feel like they were heard or got the result they needed through your process, that’s why this entity exists.”

Oklahoma Watch, at oklahomawatch.org, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers public-policy issues facing the state.

Oklahoma Watch is a non-profit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. Oklahoma Watch is non-partisan and strives to be balanced, fair, accurate and comprehensive. The reporting project collaborates on occasion with other news outlets. Topics of particular interest include poverty, education, health care, the young and the old, and the disadvantaged.
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