VOICES: Lifeblood of our freedom is honest intellectual debate

EDITOR’S NOTE: SB 83 was added to the Ohio Senate’s version of the budget, which passed last Wednesday. The budget bill now heads to conference committee and Gov. DeWine has to sign the two-year state budget by June 30. Today, hear from a perspective defending SB 83. In tomorrow’s paper, a contributor will offer a critique of the bill.

I suppose emotion in commentary is inevitable, but the writers should understand that it inhibits understanding that careful, fact-filled discussion should be designed to help. Our debates about controversial topics are too often prone to degenerate into “that’s right-wing” or “that’s left-wing” and that one or the other belongs in the wastebasket. Pay attention this summer.

For example: Senate Bill 83, titled Ohio Higher Education Enhancement Act, was passed by the Ohio Senate 21-10 with three Republicans joining Democrats against it. It would govern Ohio’s public colleges and universities, asking all as follows:

“The institution affirms that it will educate students by means of free, open, and rigorous intellectual inquiry to seek the truth.

“The institution affirms that its duty is to equip students with the intellectual skills they need to reach their own, informed conclusions on matters of social and political importance.

“The institution affirms that its duty is to ensure that no aspect of life at the institution, within or outside the classroom, requires, favors, disfavors, or prohibits speech or action to support any political, social, or religious belief.

“The institution affirms it is committed to create a community dedicated to an ethic of civil and free inquiry, which respects the autonomy of each member, supports individual capacities for growth, and tolerates the differences in opinion that naturally occur in a public higher education community.

“The institution affirms that its duty is to treat all faculty, staff, and students as individuals, to hold them to equal standards, and to provide them equal opportunity.”

That seems very straightforward and sensible, but, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details. The trustees of several colleges and universities have already objected that they, not the law, are responsible for this sort of thing. There have also been notable objections by the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP.

One repeated argument is that the bill restricts free speech. Nothing in the bill does that unless critics mean something you could call “institutional speech.” Colleges and universities may not endorse candidates, political parties or ideologies as an institution, but trustees, faculties, staff and all remain free to express personal opinions and, in that way, create “free, open, and rigorous intellectual inquiry.”

Ohio is not alone in the quest to get institutions of higher education back to the business of education and away from any form of political or ideological indoctrination. The bill’s chief sponsor, Jerry C. Cirino, R-Kirtland, has examined many scholarly studies of biased campuses and discrimination against certain speakers and faculty members based on their politics. Florida recently enacted just such legislation that also bars mandates for certain types of requirements or classes about race and gender among various current political initiatives. SB 83 mirrors that.

SB 83 also deals with civics education, requiring that students be given some very basic exposure to the principles of this country’s founding. I have been part of a push for this since polls and surveys showed many citizens came away from formal education with little knowledge about government or understanding of the freedoms they possessed, such as free speech. For a glimpse of that, note the legions of young people who think their country is nothing special. We will also be hearing sometimes vaguely informed arguments on the August vote to update the Ohio constitution on citizen initiatives.

No matter the fate of SB 83 in the Ohio House, it raises issues that need debate in the context of current events and fair publicity. There is one section, for example, that bars connections to Chinese educational institutions. Is this valid? China is not a free country and it is hard to imagine that its educational outreach is not tainted by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Some of my generation may recall similar questions raised about connections to Germany as the Nazis rose to power. It was hard for many of us to understand what the Nazis did to German scholarship and what that meant to us.

So, let us all understand that the lifeblood of our freedom is honest intellectual debate. Let’s hope we can have it off-campus as well as on.

William (Bill) H. Wild is a retired columnist and editor for numerous newspapers throughout his career, most notably as the editorial page editor of the Journal Herald in Dayton and associate editor for the Dayton Daily News.

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