Academic Freedom through Censorship and Bans? Opponents of Senate Bill 83 Pack the Statehouse in Overwhelming Opposition

Senate Bill 83 and its House companion bill, House Bill 151 experienced overwhelming opposition in a Senate Workforce and Higher Education committee meeting last Wednesday. According to the Ohio Capitol Journal, “More than 500 people submitted opponent testimony to Senate Bill 83, which would, among other things, require American history courses and tenure evaluations based on if the educator showed bias or taught with bias, and prohibit university staff and employees from striking.”

Senate Bill 83 Components

Morgan Trau of News 5 Cleveland writes that in short, the bill does the following:

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”

The bill also limits “what and how ‘controversial topics’ can and should be taught. Listed as controversial beliefs are diversity, politics, climate change and many more.”

Republican Justification

The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) was unapologetic in his defense of the bill saying that good professors have nothing to worry about. He has received many emails from professors who are emailing his office about their concern for their jobs, he added.

“Maybe they’re not good at what they do, and maybe their job should be in jeopardy,” Cirino said.The bill is about free speech and diversity of thought since some conservatives feel discriminated against, he added.

“Our university campuses, which have always been left of center, but they have gone extremely left of center, and people who feel differently do not feel that they can express themselves,” Cirino said.

Overwhelming Opposition

However, bipartisan and nonpartisan opponents believe the bill will limit academic freedom, silence important voices, and destroy vigorous analysis of important issues and academic content.

“It is bad for students, it is bad for higher education, and it is bad for Ohio,” said Cynthia Peoples, the founding director of Honesty for Ohio Education. “This bill attacks academic freedom. It attacks our students’ freedom to learn.”

Other advocacy groups that oppose this bill are Ohio State University’s chapter of American Association of University Professors (AAUP), Ohio Education Association, Ohio Federation of Teachers, and ACLU of Ohio.

Student Concerns

Students voiced almost unanimous opposition to the bill as well. 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, and “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, according to News 5 Cleveland.

More than 100 students signed up to testify including at least 49 from Ohio State, 25 from Miami University, and 13 from Kent State University.

Their concerns ranged from academic integrity, to discrimination, to workforce preparedness.

Clovis Westlund, an Ohio State University student told the Ohio Capital Journal that the bill is universally despised by students,

“We will seek education elsewhere that affirms our identities, supports the communities built among marginalized students and adequately prepares us to enter a diverse workforce,” he said. “We will take our money out of Ohio universities, take our talent out of Ohio economies and take our energy out of Ohio communities.” 

University of Toledo law student Colin Flanagan told Cleveland News 5 that he believes 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.

Faculty Objections

College and University Faculty spoke in unified opposition of the bill as well. 

OSU Public Affairs professor Dr. Erynn Beaton, who teaches a course on economic inequality, something that can be seen as a “controversial topic” remarked, “This bill is written in a way that is meant to silence some of those voices, not to make everyone heard,” Beaton said. “The bill in particular is written in a way that’s pretty ambiguous.”

OSU English professor Dr. Pranav Jani noted the apparent hypocrisy of the bill, “[The bill] says it’s for free speech, it says it’s for diversity of thought — but it also gives us all these bans of things we can’t talk about,” Jani said.

“It’s exactly the kind of top-down, 1984-style Big Brother government that I thought Republicans were opposed to,” the professor said. “These people haven’t even consulted students when making a bill that’s supposed to be on behalf of students to protect them from people like me.”

Despite Clear Opposition, Republicans Pushing Ahead

Overall, 400-500 people planned to testify against the bill. Only eight testified in favor. In response to the overwhelming objections, the bill’s sponsor, indicated he was open to some language changes, but was not able to provide any examples of what changes or modifications he would be making. 

When questioned by News 5’s Morgan Trau asked Cirino, “For how many people were speaking out against this bill — as the sponsor, what does that tell you about this piece of legislation?” 

The lawmaker responded. “Well, I guess some people might be disenchanted by it, but I don’t get bullied very easily.”

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