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Bill Promises To Make Kansas Campuses Welcome The Left And The Right

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Kansas colleges would have to welcome voices on both the left and the right--like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter--under a new bill before lawmakers.

A bill backed by Republican lawmakers intends to send a message to college campuses in Kansas: No restricting free speech, no matter the perspective.

The Campus Free Speech Protection Act would insist that universities make clear that all of their outdoor spaces, not just “free speech zones,” embrace political outlooks and events regardless of how they fit with trends in academic thought.

Free speech zones set aside parts of campus for protests and are sometimes seen as a way of moving dissent out of view. They’ve been pointed to as a violation of the First Amendment, especially by conservatives arguing that higher education has become dismissive of their views. The zones often struggle to stand up to legal scrutiny and are quickly fading.

The bill would also stop universities from canceling speakers based on their views or security concerns related to potential protests they might draw.

Multiple states, including Tennessee and Colorado, have passed similar legislation. The bill now before Kansas lawmakers doesn’t outline any punishments for universities that violate it, and mostly spells out what is likely already covered by the First Amendment. But proponents feel the clarification is necessary, if redundant.

Sen. Ty Masterson, who backs the bill, said that students receive valuable insight when ideas can clash openly on college campuses.

“It can even be gained from listening to somebody who is completely offensive,” the Andover Republican said during a hearing on the bill before the Kansas Legislature Committee on Federal and State Affairs.

“You gain the knowledge that this is an idiot and we do not want to go this direction,” he said.

Masterson said he hasn't seen free speech being restricted at universities in Kansas, but that it's happening across the country.

Violent protests against a planned speech at the University of California Berkeley by Milo Yiannopoulos, an alt-right provocateur who used to write for Breitbart, caused his speech to be canceled. When he did eventually speak on campus months later, the university spent about $800,000 on security. A speech at Berkeley by conservative columnist and author Ann Coulter was also canceled due to expected protests.

Under Kansas' proposed Campus Free Speech Protection Act, universities couldn’t use the threat of such protests as a reason to shut down even the most radical speakers.

Victoria Snitsar, a junior at the University of Kansas, told the committee that she sees the free speech of conservatives stifled on campus.

“I’ve seen, personally seen, classmates be asked to remove Trump bumper stickers from their laptops by a teacher because it was deemed offensive,” said Snitsar, who is also the communications director for the Kansas Federation of College Republicans. “However, nobody batted an eye at the drove of students in ‘Feel The Bern’ and 'Hillary 2016’ shirts.”

Megan Jones, who said she participated in liberal demonstrations when she attended the University of Kansas, spoke against the bill. She argued that it’s a university's job to evaluate and judge information, be it through peer reviews or other processes. She said universities should be allowed to apply the same filter to speakers.

“Sometimes,” she said, “opinions shouldn’t necessarily be given as much space because they’re not based in fact.”

There was a heated back and forth between Jones and a few senators who said campuses must make room for all views. That led to a discussion about whether members of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan should be heard. Sen. Bud Estes said that happened when he attended college.

Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, the first African-American woman to serve in the Kansas Senate, said she originally anticipated supporting this legislation. The KKK discussion gave her pause.

“The outcome of their intent of their speech was murdering people,” Faust-Goudeau said. “My daughter, who plays tennis, now, I don’t think I would want the group to come and disrupt her tennis game with their freedom of speech.”

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Stephan Bisaha is an education reporter for KMUW’s Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha.