Opinion: Ohio Senate Bill 83 will ban free speech, not defend it.

By Addison Caruso

Ohio Senate Bill 83, which seeks to ban the discussion of “divisive concepts” in the classroom, has faced widespread opposition from students, professors, and citizens. The bill, introduced by State Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) in early 2023, follows a litany of legislation proposed and enacted in other states, like Florida and South Carolina, which backers say defend free speech, but ban it.

Senate Bill 83:

• Bans public statements and positions about “controversial” topics like climate change, electoral policy, immigration, marriage, and this list is not exhaustive,

• Bans labor strikes from faculty,

• Bans partnerships with Chinese institutions,

• Bans diversity training,

• Bans groups, clubs, organizations based on race, sex, sexuality, and gender identity possibly targeting athletic teams and dorms

• Bans programs, policies, practices, on race, sex, sexuality, gender identity (Lines #183-187)

While the bill primarily affects public schools, it also has provisions targeting private schools, including requiring them to sign paperwork affirming they follow free speech guidelines to receive public funds.

The vague language in the bill has also created fears among professors and students that discussion in the classroom would be chilled, potentially leading to self-censorship for fear of lawsuits or job repercussions.

The bill’s broad language has also sparked concerns from Jewish groups that it would require teaching “both sides” of the Holocaust. Ohioans recognize the damage this bill could cause and are overwhelmingly opposed to the bill. During its initial hearing on April 18, over 500 opponents testified against the bill and only eight testified in favor.

This bill may also affect my current work as an instructor in Case Western Law School’s Environmental Law Clinic, where we work on issues that address divisive concepts like climate change.

Furthermore, in the classroom, we present other novel and sometimes controversial topics to get the students’ feedback and push them to think about issues more deeply. If we cannot do this and must shy away from concepts that may be “divisive,” it devalues legal education and harms students.

If law schools and other higher education institutions, cannot discuss divisive concepts and challenge students to think critically, students will also choose to attend schools in other states and may not return to Ohio.

In our world, the true competition is for talent, and to get the best and the brightest, Ohio must have an education system that nurtures the best and the brightest. This bill does the opposite and harms our educational system and chills discussion in the classroom.

Because of the overwhelming opposition, State Senator Cirino has promised to make some amendments to the bill but has not provided any examples of changes or modifications he would make.

Undeterred by the opposition, however, he has vowed to press forward in passing some form of the bill, saying “I don’t get bullied very easily.” Respectfully, senator, this isn’t students, higher institutions, professors, and citizens trying to bully you; we are trying to use our right to speak out against a damaging bill. I just hope you listen to us.

Attorney Addison Caruso of Oakwood is a fellow at Case Western University in its Environmental Law Clinic.

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