COLUMBUS, Ohio — In the name of free speech, a massive college overhaul bill would ban public universities in Ohio from having “bias” in the classroom, stop programs with Chinese schools and prevent labor strikes.
Senate Bill 83 was introduced during a press conference Wednesday. State Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) said it will "ensure Ohio’s students are educated by means of free, open and rigorous intellectual inquiry to seek the truth."
To education advocates, like the Honesty for Ohio Education's Cynthia Peeples, it is an "attack on honest education, diversity, equity, and inclusion, worker rights and Asian culture" and "is an affront to all who believe in honest, inclusive education and a multiracial democracy."
The bill primarily impacts public schools but also has provisions that would deal with private — including making private schools that want public funds sign paperwork assuring they are following free speech guidelines.
The blanket proposal was confusing for college students News 5 spoke with.
"None of the people in the state legislature are in our classrooms learning with us," Arianna Kelawala, an Ohio State University sophomore, said.
This is why Kelawala, a Democrat who works in social justice advocacy, is concerned with S.B. 83.
The extensive bill prohibits “bias” in classrooms, including no mandatory diversity training for anyone.
"I think this kind of villainizes educators," she said. "And diversity and inclusion standards make our campus more diverse, make them better."
Democratic activist and University of Toledo law student Colin Flanagan says lawmakers want to pick and choose whose voice gets heard since the bill also requires an American history course with required readings and "intellectual diversity” in speakers who come to the school.
"I think that the agenda that they're pushing is nothing more than scare tactics that's being thrown out to intimidate people about what's going on in institutions of higher learning," Flanagan said.
Republican activist and Case Western Reserve University senior Teja Paladugu can see the benefit of this but can’t support the bill yet — especially since it is vague, he said.
"Who decides what's diversity and what's inherently bad and what we should keep off campus?" Paladugu asked. "I don't want dangerous people on campus, but at the same time, I don't want people to be shut out because of their political ideology just not agreeing with like 60, 70% of students."
That is exactly what the bill is about, Cirino said. He wants to allow for free speech and academic honesty.
"This aspect of this section of the bill prohibits political and ideological litmus tests," he said.
His version of free speech includes a mandatory course on American history.
To earn a bachelor's or associate's degree, students must take a course on the U.S. Constitution. Required reading would include the Declaration of Independence, essays from the Federalist Papers, the entire Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King's letter from the Birmingham Jail.
"Why is it that the bulk of American history that they wanted to teach is 140 years old?" Flanagan asked. "Not only should this type of curriculum be decided by the Department of Higher Education, but if students are being forced to take that class, they should also have to read about the atrocities minorities experienced, like Japanese internment camps or sundown towns."
But another portion of the bill worries Kelawala the most. The bill would ban colleges from partnering or having programs with Chinese institutions.
"This could play into xenophobic and racist narratives that Asian-Americans and specifically Chinese-Americans have been facing across the country," she said.
The implications for current students at OSU is also alarming, she said.
"One of the reasons Ohio State is one of our nation's largest research universities — we have a really robust exchange program with them in terms of students, ideas, professors," Kelawala said. "So to cut off all of our relationships with China, I think would be like really devastating for Ohio State, but also lots of other universities around the state."
It isn't just China that would be impacted. It would also apply to any other country that is associated with China.
Cirino addressed this, saying he isn’t trying to prevent students from coming over.
"An Ohio college might have an arrangement with the Shanghai University and they have programs that they're exchanging, doing research with perhaps, those kinds of things — that's what we're talking about," the lawmaker said.
In a departure from curricula, the bill seeks to prevent labor strikes or boycotts, as they hurt the contract process, Cirino said. Ohio Education Association's President Scott DiMauro rebuked this.
"Any proposal that undermines the freedom of educators to teach and learn or that threatens collective bargaining rights would threaten the ability of these high-quality professionals to effectively do their jobs and fight for the learning conditions their students deserve," DiMauro said.
The bill bans:
- "bias" in classrooms
- programs with Chinese schools
- mandatory diversity training
- labor strikes
- boycotts or disinvestments
The bill requires:
- American history course
- public syllabuses and teacher information online
- tenure evaluations based on if the educator showed bias or taught with bias — students will also evaluate
- rewrite of mission statements to include that educators teach so students can reach their "own conclusions"
Case student Paladugu can see where the bill is coming from, but said that the bill is "not fully thought out."
"It's being written by a bunch of people who have been out of college for a very long time," he laughed.
Free speech only applying to one political perspective isn't actually free speech, Kelawala said.
So far, no public or private institution has shown support for the bill.
Follow WEWS statehouse reporter Morgan Trau on Twitter and Facebook.