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New Ohio House higher education bill aims to protect academic freedom on college campuses

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New Ohio House higher education bill aims to protect academic freedom on college campuses

Feb 07, 2024 | 4:50 am ET
By Megan Henry
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New Ohio House higher education bill aims to protect academic freedom on college campuses
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College student on campus. Getty Images.

An Ohio House Republican lawmaker is trying to ban public universities from requiring people to commit to a certain belief, ideology, or political spectrum. A professor questioned what problem it was addressing, but liked its protection of academic freedom.

State Rep. Adam Holmes, R-Nashport, introduced House Bill 394 last week — a bill he said would support academic freedom on college campuses. 

“It’s a protection from coerced or compelled speech,” he said. “And this is not just for students. It’s for teachers, instructors, and for job applicants. … There’s no intent to be provocative. … We really encourage the discussion of all ideas.”

Holmes gave an example of university faculty members having to sign loyalty oaths during the McCarthy era. 

“This is again a reframing to ensure that won’t happen,” Holmes said. 

Holmes said he talked with several Ohio public university representatives while working on this bill. He said universities need to be a protected space where people feel comfortable expressing different ideas — something his constituents are telling him is not happening. 

“They’re really concerned about it,” Holmes said. 

Steve Mockabee, an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, said it seems like HB 394 is a solution in search of a problem. He was not speaking on behalf of the Ohio Conference AAUP–American Association of University Professors. 

“I think what’s motivating (the bill) is a perception that our institutions of higher education are compelling employees or students to ascribe to specific political beliefs, and I haven’t seen evidence that that’s taking place,” he said. “But if they want to preemptively address that, this seems like a bill that does that.”

Senate Bill 83 

Holmes said Senate Bill 83, which would have a dramatic effect on Ohio colleges, was a factor for him in drafting HB 394. 

SB 83 is a wide-ranging bill that would prevent unions from negotiating on tenure, allow universities to fire tenured professors for a broad list of reasons, and prohibit mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion. 

The bill also defines controversial beliefs or policy as “any belief or policy that is the subject of political controversy, including issues such as climate policies, electoral politics, foreign policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy, marriage, or abortion.”

It would allow students to “reach their own conclusions about all controversial beliefs or policies and shall not seek to indoctrinate any social, political, or religious point of view.”

“When I looked at Senate Bill 83, the scope is really broad,” Holmes said. “We thought (HB 394) was much more specific and laser-focused. I think there is a little bit of overlap, but I think it’s a little more specific on just protection of freedom. … I’m hoping that gives broader support and more accelerated passage.”

SB 83 was introduced by State Sen. Jerry Cirino, R-Kirtland, last year. The bill passed the Senate and was voted favorably out of the Ohio House Higher Education Committee in December, but has not been brought to the House floor. 

Holmes said he has not talked to Cirino about either bill — SB 83 or HB 394. 

“I would hope this is an alternative if SB 83 is not going to happen,” Holmes said. 

Mockabee said it seems like HB 394 takes a more measured approach then SB 83. 

“I think it’s a much more reasonable starting point for discussion about higher education policy than what we see in SB 83,” he said. 

Mockabee said he likes how HB 394 says it wouldn’t limit a faculty member’s academic freedom or ability to “write publications about specific beliefs, affiliations, ideals, or principles concerning political movements, ideology, or social action.”

House Bill 214

Holmes said HB 394 is an almost exact copy of another one of his bills — House Bill 214, which would require school districts to create policies that ban teachers, students and those applying for jobs from adhering to a certain political or ideological belief. 

“We tried to make those two really consistent with each other,” Holmes said. 

HB 214 passed the House in November and has had sponsor testimony in the Senate Education Committee. 

Ohio Democrats and educators argue HB 214 would cause confusion for Ohio school districts and point out the Licensure Code of Professional Conduct for Ohio educators already exists as a policy teachers and administrators should comply with. The Licensure Code was developed by the Educator Standards Board and the Ohio Department of Education and adopted by the State Board of Education in 2008, with updates added in 2019.  

Follow OCJ Reporter Megan Henry on X.