State legislation moves through General Assembly

Emma Austin

Among the legislation currently moving through the Kentucky General Assembly are three bills with specific relevance to public universities, covering policies related to government influence on educational boards, vaccination requirements and student First Amendment rights, Each bill is currently being processed for consideration at different stages in the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 107

Senate Bill 107 would allow the governor to remove and replace previously appointed board members to ensure compliance with statutory proportional representation requirements including political party affiliation and race. The bill would also allow the governor to remove and replace entire boards.

The bill was discussed as an information only item in the Senate State and Local Government committee and follows the University of Louisville’s placement on accreditation probation after Gov. Matt Bevin attempted to abolish the university board he called dysfunctional and appoint new members, an effort blocked by the Franklin Circuit Court.

SB 107 states the governor may “remove all appointed members of the board or council and replace the entire appointed membership” upon the governor’s finding that the board “is no longer functioning according to its statutory mandate.”

SGA President and Student Regent Jay Todd Richey said he strongly opposes the passage of this bill and the governmental influence it would impose on university boards.

“It’s so unnecessary,” Richey said. “If there’s undue burden from the political sector of our society, we can’t efficiently educate our students without being threatened by the government. Essentially, if you disagree with the governor you’ll be removed.”

House Bill 147

House Bill 147 would require all incoming freshmen beginning in fall 2017 to provide documentation of vaccination against diseases in accordance with recommendations from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including measles, rubella, mumps, meningococcal disease and any diseases required by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The bill would allow exemption based on sworn objection to the vaccination based on religious grounds and does not apply to students enrolled in online courses only.

Currently, the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky are the only public universities in the state with vaccination requirements for incoming freshmen.

Last spring, the WKU Student Government Association passed a resolution to require incoming freshmen living on campus to provide proof of vaccination against the meningococcal disease, which is a cause of bacterial meningitis, a highly contagious deadly disease known for outbreaks in community-style living settings. The resolution was denied by WKU Administration.

In a letter to the SGA explaining the administrative decision against the resolution, President Gary Ransdell said the resolution speaks primarily to students who arrive at WKU from out of state or through a private school, since Kentucky requires students at public schools to be vaccinated.

In his letter, Ransdell also addressed the difficulties some students may have in paying for the vaccinations. The bill states it would not require the university to provide or pay for the vaccinations, meaning students would be required to pay to receive the vaccinations unless they are covered by insurance.

Sophomore Andi Dahmer, the SGA senator who authored the resolution, said she believes more universities should implement legislation similar to the bill she wrote.

“I think the requirement is necessary,” Dahmer told a Herald reporter last semester. “If one person doesn’t get vaccinated then that can have detrimental effects on the entire community.”

Although Kentucky currently doesn’t require public universities to collect student proof of vaccination, it does require education on certain diseases and available vaccinations.

Tracy Kielman, director of the Kentucky Immunization Coalition, said education is key to promoting immunization given current legislation.

“I think requirements are more effective, obviously, than education,” Kielman said. “However, education, in my opinion, is better than nothing at all.”

Kathryn Steward, assistant director of health education at WKU, told a Herald reporter last semester that part of the reason WKU does not require immunizations for admission is because it could be seen as a barrier.

“If there was a law that was passed, it would make this a lot easier, because you don’t have to worry about that factor, is someone going to see this as a barrier,” Steward said. “If other schools are not requiring it and you are, you’re then creating a potential barrier for enrollment.”

HB 147 passed the House Health and Family Services committee and now goes to the House floor for consideration.

Senate Bill 17

Senate Bill 17 addresses protection of students’ First Amendment rights on campus. The bill would require students to be permitted to voluntarily express religious or political viewpoints in school assignments free from discrimination or penalty based on expressed viewpoints.

The bill would also require public postsecondary educational boards to ensure students’ right to freedom of speech, restricting alteration before delivery without the student’s consent.

Richey said this bill is “completely unnecessary” because the rights of students to express and practice religious views are already protected by the First Amendment.

“This legislation is just going to add confusion because we already have these rights,” Richey said. “It appears to preempt existing campus code of conduct and diversity policies.”

Richey said he has often seen freedom of religion arguments being used to cloak discrimination and sees this bill as a way of prioritizing one religion over another.

SB 17 was passed by the Senate and received in the House of Representatives for consideration Feb. 10. 

Reporter Emma Austin can be reached at (270)745-0655 and [email protected].

This story originally reported Kentucky State University has vaccination requirements for admission. KSU recommends certain immunizations but they are not required for admission. The Herald regrets this error.