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Higher ed ‘free speech’ bill author praises Ohio State's actions on pro-Palestine protests

People protesting Israel's actions in the war in Gaza set up an encampment and an hours-long demonstration on the main campus of Ohio State University in Columbus on Thursday, April 25, 2024.
George Shillcock
WOSU Public Media
People protesting Israel's actions in the war in Gaza set up an encampment and an hours-long demonstration on the main campus of Ohio State University in Columbus on Thursday, April 25, 2024.

The Republican state lawmaker who wrote the bill that seeks to address conservatives’ concerns about free speech on campus said he's pleased with how Ohio State University handled a pro-Palestinian demonstration that ended in dozens of arrests.

But he floated the possibility of legislation to deal with protests in the future. And that's concerned a faculty group that's condemned the university's response.

State Sen. Jerry Cirino (R-Kirtland) said while "extreme measures have had to be taken" after protests and encampments at some universities, such as canceling classes and graduation, he's pleased with the way Thursday's demonstration at Ohio State’s main campus was handled.

"President (Ted) Carter understands what his main focus is in taking care of the students, particularly during exam week, when lots of disruptions like this are certainly not welcomed by a lot of students," Cirino said.

A group opposed to the war in Gaza assembled on Ohio State's campus for hours of pro-Palestine protests on Thursday, calling for OSU to disclose and divest any university dollars going to Israel.

Police said group members were warned several times that the tents they had set up weren't allowed under university rules. Police and state troopers in riot gear moved into the area as some in the group began an Islamic evening prayer and others encircled them. A total of 36 people were arrested. Ohio State said in an emailed statement that 16 of the 36 arrested are undergraduate or graduate students or staff at OSU, and the remaining 20 aren’t affiliated with the university.

Carter said in a statement: "What occurred on our campus on April 25 was not about limiting free speech. It was an intentional violation of university space rules that exist so that teaching, learning, research, service and patient care can occur on our campuses without interruption."

The action was widely criticized, including by students from around the state and by faculty organizations.

"I think that as we approach the May 4 anniversary of the shootings at Kent State (in 1970), we should be acutely cognizant of how these situations can unnecessarily escalate," said Sara Kilpatrick, executive director of the Ohio Conference of the American Association of University Professors. "But in terms of students protesting and exercising their right to free speech on campuses, this is certainly nothing new."

Cirino is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 83, which would ban most mandatory diversity training in public colleges. It also would require what’s called “intellectual diversity” on topics spelled out in the legislation: "climate policies; electoral politics; foreign policy; diversity, equity, and inclusion programs; immigration policy; marriage; or abortion."

The bill also would prohibit universities from taking public positions on controversial topics, though they can lobby lawmakers on issues. An earlier version of the measure called for banningfaculty strikes, but that was removed in a House committee.

Cirino, who was the chairman of the board of trustees of Lakeland Community College in northeast Ohio, said he supports the right to peacefully protest. But he said these protests have verged into being anti-Semitic, and he added he thinks they're being pushed by "Marxist" OSU faculty members.

"I don't believe actually that most of the student protestors actually even know where Gaza is or the historical nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," Cirino said. "When these expressions cross over a certain line and threaten and endanger or literally harm individuals — in this case, Jewish students or people sympathetic with Israel — that crosses the line and that cannot be tolerated. Nor can students or activists who are not students, which are many of them, unfortunately, take over buildings and occupy facilities that they have no rights to be doing so too."

Kilpatrick pushed back on those comments.

"I think you're hearing a frustrated lawmaker who hasn't been able to get his deeply unpopular Senate Bill 83 passed and he's lashing out at students and faculty," said Kilpatrick. "He disagrees with students can think for themselves, unlike lawmakers who copy and paste bills developed by out-of-state interests. I think it's deeply insulting to the students and we know it's simply untrue."

Cirino said SB 83 addresses classroom and academic activities, not protests like this. But he's watching what happens.

"Because of summer and graduation and students leaving, I think things will naturally simmer down here over the next couple of weeks. At least that's my hope," Cirino said. "But we'll have to see if there's additional legislation that is going to be necessary."

Kilpatrick is also watching.

"I think the lesson here is to beware of politicians trying to pass so-called campus free speech bills because what they're actually trying to do is clamp down on types of speech they disagree with while amplifying speech with which they do agree," said Kilpatrick. "I think that there is potential for additional legislation to come to fruition. What that might look like remains to be seen."

Contact Karen at 614-578-6375 or at
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