Although it’s too soon to say for certain, a new wave of state-level legislation directed toward reforming public universities may be building. Beginning in 2015, a number of state legislatures passed laws banning so-called campus free-speech zones (rules that confine outdoor political expression to tiny areas of the campus). In a second wave of legislation that began in 2017, states started passing comprehensive campus free-speech bills that did more than simply abolish free-speech zones.
The most ambitious bills in this second wave of legislation were based on the model campus free-speech bill published by Arizona’s Goldwater Institute. (I co-authored that model along with Jim Manley and Jonathan Butcher.) The Goldwater model, for example, not only abolishes free-speech zones but also provides for the discipline of students who shout down visiting speakers, sets up an oversight system to monitor the performance of administrators in upholding the law, and includes numerous other free-speech protections as well.
Now a third wave of campus reform legislation may be underway. Last year, in collaboration with the National Association of Scholars, I published a model campus intellectual diversity bill, as well as an explanation of the proposal. The National Association of Scholars formally endorsed the proposal, as has Mark Bauerlein at Minding the Campus. The basic idea is to have public universities create offices of Public Policy Events, which would be charged with organizing debates, panel discussions, and individual lectures designed to explore widely debated public-policy issues from divergent and competing perspectives. So, for example, the office might arrange debates on issues like trade, immigration, abortion, the Green New Deal, or single-payer health care. The office would also invite individual speakers to address such issues at different times and from different perspectives.
The Office of Public Policy Events would publish a calendar listing all the events it organized, with the topics and speakers, and would make videos of its events available to the public. Academic departments and student groups could go on as usual inviting any speakers they like, with no requirement for balance. The Office of Public Policy Events would also publish a record of all public policy-related events on campus. This comprehensive list would give taxpayers, parents, and students a good sense of the extent of intellectual diversity available in campus public events.
While the Office of Public Policy Events could be a separate administrative entity with newly appointed personnel, universities could simply designate an existing administrator as the Director of Public Policy Events on campus. That means no new hires would necessarily be involved. Unless the office receives an additional appropriation, it would have to be financed out of existing funds.
Arizona State Representative Anthony Kern has now introduced HB 2238, based on the model campus intellectual diversity bill I’ve just described. Kern was a pioneering figure in the first wave of campus free-speech legislation, sponsoring a bill in 2016 that eliminated free-speech zones at Arizona’s public universities. Now he has taken a groundbreaking step in what may turn out to be the third wave of campus-reform legislation.
A generally positive recent article on Representative Kern’s bill raised the concern that the Office of Public Policy Events may be required by law to arrange a lecture by a Holocaust denier to “balance” a lecture about the Holocaust given before a department or student group on campus. This is a misunderstanding of the bill.
There is no requirement whatever in HB 2238 for the Office of Public Policy Events to balance talks arranged by departments or student groups on campus. The office only needs to seek for competing perspectives in the events it chooses to organize. There are no requirements in the law as to which specific issues ought to be debated. If the office doesn’t believe that a given issue is worthy of debate, it is under no obligation to arrange a debate on that topic.
The bill does contain a provision instructing the office to “prioritize inviting speakers from outside the university who hold perspectives on widely debated public policy issues that are otherwise poorly represented on campus.” This simply means that if the office decides to set up a debate on, say, the Green New Deal, and there are no professors on campus able and willing to speak against it, the office should seek speakers from outside the university to take that position in the debate.
Again, the public-policy issues to be debated are at the discretion of the university. Speakers could come from on or off campus. Presumably, many professors from on campus will participate in the various debates, panels, and individual lectures. When on-campus advocates with the expertise and willingness to present a given position are lacking, however, the office should seek speakers from outside the university to make sure both sides are represented.
Kern’s bill provides for no dedicated appropriation, so the university will have to pay for the office out of existing funds. No new hires will necessarily be involved.
Bills based on the model campus intellectual diversity act have been introduced in other states as well, and I will be announcing these shortly. Additional states may jump in too. It’s still early in the 2020 state legislative session. Nonetheless, filing a bill is a far cry from getting a hearing, passing both houses, and obtaining a signature from the governor. It’s still too early to tell whether a third wave of campus reform legislation is truly underway. Even so, the introduction of campus intellectual diversity bills in several states is an encouraging sign. More states may follow, and the bills already filed may (or may not) make good progress.
Just putting the issue on the table is a big step. Filing a bill sets off debate and builds attention and support. It’s not uncommon for it to take more than one legislative cycle for a new idea to get serious traction. We’ll see what the future holds. With Anthony Kern’s introduction of HB 2238, however, the idea of bringing greater intellectual diversity to our public university systems has taken a very big step forward.