New legislation affects students’ free speech

Jamie Williams

Gov. Matt Bevin has signed a new bill that could affect students’ First Amendment rights on K-12 and college campuses.

Senate Bill 17 allows students to express any religious or political viewpoints free from discrimination. The bill also states student organizations can not be discriminated against in its internal affairs, meaning any student organization can deny a student entry based on a difference in political or religious beliefs.

SB 17 includes several other provisions for freedom of religious or political speech including ensuring prepared student remarks are not altered without consent, allowing religious and secular student organizations equal access to facilities and that students are free to wear clothing with printed religious messages.

The bill also includes protections for teachers using the Bible or other scripture in class, as long as they are not providing religious instruction. Students are also permitted to express political and religious viewpoints during class discussions and assignments free from discrimination.

“Senate Bill 17 is a free speech bill that some of our faculty are a little stressed over,” President Gary Ransdell said during the Board of Regents meeting Friday. “I don’t know that it will have a dramatic impact on us, but I expect this one will get tested at some point.”

SB 17 was authored in response to an incident where an elementary school cut Bible verses out of its performance of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” While the elementary school did decide to cut the scripture from its play, federal law states the school had complete freedom to keep the verses in their entirety.

Legislators went on to author SB 17 amidst the controversy that Christians in Kentucky were victims of discrimination.

Advocacy groups such as the Human Rights Campaign have expressed concern this non-discrimination bill would actually incite more discrimination against political and religious minority groups. The Fairness Campaign said the bill is “redundant, unnecessary, [and] overly broad” since the protections it provides are already offered by the First Amendment.

Student Government Association President Jay Todd Richey expressed concern with how the bill would affect discrimination policy among student organizations. During the Board of Regents meeting, Richey said he read the bill as protecting student organizations that would want to deny entry to students of certain races or religions.

WKU General Counsel Deborah Wilkins and Ransdell said they did not interpret the bill in this way.

“I think what this statute does is simply make what we had already been doing — WKU and other universities — statutory, because we’ve had non-discrimination policies in place for decades,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins gave the example that if a Jewish student organization wanted to limit its members to only members of the Jewish religion, that would be acceptable. However, if they wanted to limit their members to only white Jewish students, that would be a problem under WKU’s non-discrimination policy.

Richey also said the bill fails to define exactly what a political student organization would be. He gave the example that the WKU Student Coalition for Renters’ Rights advocate for students’ housing rights to lawmakers, but they don’t technically support a specific political affiliation. For now, it seems unclear how the bill will affect groups like these.

Some members of the SGA have already begun working on a response to SB 17. If approved, the new bill would require student organizations to affirm a statement of non-discrimination before receiving any funding from the SGA.

“It’s very simple,” Richey said. “SGA is not going to subsidize discrimination.”

While WKU already has its own statement of non-discrimination, the SGA will have its own version to be signed by student organizations that apply for SGA funding. The SGA’s statement will include protections for students’ gender identity — a clause not included in university policy. 

The SGA senate will vote on the new bill during its meeting tonight.

Reporter Jamie Williams can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected]