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Oklahoma House Signs off on Bill Banning Campus "Free Speech Zones"

Matt Trotter

Oklahoma lawmakers continue their efforts to prohibit designated areas for expression on public college campuses.

The Oklahoma House approved Senate Bill 361 on Monday. It deems all outdoor areas at the state's colleges and universities as public forums.

Rep. Mark Lepak said the higher education environment is much different than when he attended college, and students knew they would be exposed all over campus to ideas they may not agree with or even find offensive.

"Today, we talk about free speech zones and safe zones and trigger warnings and those types of things. We counsel students when they come in about making sure you don’t offend anybody and kind of go that direction," Lepak said.

Conservative groups have led the charge to pass similar bills in several states, saying their ideas are being shut down.

Rep. John Waldron said the bill "weaponizes" free speech and will do the opposite of what supporters want and would make it more likely outside, non-student extremist groups like the Westboro Baptist Church schedule stops at Oklahoma colleges..

"We run the risk of turning our universities and higher education institutions into intellectual free-fire zones where only the loudest and most radical voices will be heard. There’ll be no more room for the political center upon which democracy depends," Waldron said.

Rep. Merleyn Bell said the legislature doesn’t have enough skin in the game to dictate policy for higher education institutions.

"I find it incredibly hypocritical to suggest that the state legislature should dictate what is and is not acceptable on college campuses when this body has consistently divested from higher education in years past," Bell said.

The House amended Senate Bill 361, sending it back to the Senate before it goes to the governor.