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Could A Campus Speech Bill Require Ohio State To Allow Richard Spencer?

Richard Spencer speaks at Texas A&M University in December 2016.
Richard Spencer speaks at Texas A&M University in December 2016.

White nationalist Richard Spencer says he will sue The Ohio State University and the University of Cincinnati if they don’t agree by Friday to let him speak on their campuses. His request is raising concerns about safety if the event is allowed, as well as debates over the abilities of schools to limit speech.

“Well either we have free speech or we don’t,” says Republican state Rep. Andy Brenner. “I don’t agree with his speech. I disagree with him completely. However, he also has a right to free speech.”

Brenner is sponsoring the Ohio Campus Free Speech Act, a bill in the Ohio House that could set rules for situations like this in the future. According to his office, the bill prohibits universities from taking action that could limit the expression of students or speakers based on their content, bans them from disinviting speakers based on the potential reaction, and eliminates “free speech zones.”

The bill, HB 363, was introduced in August but hasn’t had hearings yet. It’s uncertain if it could pave the way for Richard Spencer, a founder of the “alt-right” movement and leader of the National Policy Institute – he was not disinvited from speaking, because his request was not accepted in the first place.

As of Tuesday, Ohio State says they are still reviewing Spencer's proposal, which expected a few hundred attendees as well as protesters. In September, they initially denied the request, saying it would pose "substantial risk to public safety."

Brenner says the key would be whether a college group or students made the speaking request. If so, the universities would have to allow it.

So far, there haven’t been any requests from student groups based at Ohio State or the University of Cincinnati for Spencer to speak – rather, the request for both came from Spencer’s associate Cameron Padgett, a student from Georgia State. 

Ohio State declined to comment about the threat of legal action.

Copyright 2017 WOSU 89.7 NPR News