The Senate Education Committee advanced legislation Thursday that would prohibit colleges and universities from discriminating against people who refuse to support certain political or social beliefs.
Senate Bill 6 aims to protect students and employees against viewpoint discrimination on campus, according to the bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green. He said lawmakers have a constitutional role in overseeing how taxpayer money is spent in education.
“We need to ensure that those funds are promoting educational excellence and rigor to help our students – all students – succeed in this 21st century with intellectual autonomy and not trendy, divisive, ivory tower theories,” he said. “I filed this bill on behalf of students and faculty because First Amendment rights are being violated.”
The bill provides a list of what it calls “divisive concepts,” which includes certain political and social theories and ideas about privilege or guilt based on race or sex, among other beliefs.
It would prohibit colleges and universities from requiring faculty, students, or staff to adopt certain positions on such concepts as condition of employment or to obtain academic benefits. Campuses could not use divisive concepts in training and hiring or require students to take courses on such concepts as an academic prerequisite.
Among other provisions, SB 6 also calls for colleges to provide resources on free speech and viewpoint diversity during student orientation. The state attorney general would have certain powers to enforce the bill.
“Currently, in our law, we protect K-12 teachers and school employees from discrimination in hirings and promotions based on political or religious opinions or affiliations,” Wilson said. “(The) same protections need to be extended to our public university faculty as well and made more explicit for students.”
The committee voted 10-2 to advance the bill to the Senate for consideration. However, the meeting sparked nearly two hours of debate as lawmakers and education professionals clashed over speech, academic freedom, and the nature of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs.
Critics of the bill said DEI initiatives are being misrepresented and charged that SB 6 would undermine crucial academic work and support systems that are key to student success. They also said the legislation would create an atmosphere of intimidation on campus and limit critical thinking.
Supporters disagreed, however, including one who recounted how she missed out on a campus job because of her response to an interview question about social justice. Another said a lack of viewpoint diversity on campus is driving down public trust in higher education.
Senate Minority Caucus Chair Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, was one lawmaker to vote against the measure. He said DEI programs have helped ensure students, teachers, and administrators are varied.
“There is a fundamental misunderstanding about DEI programs. Diversity, equity, and inclusion programs were adopted and created…to make sure that we got more variety of people – all kinds of people – in schools, to provide learning supports for those students, to provide them graduation opportunities, to ensure that they got good jobs and they became part of the American social fabric in our society,” he said.
Another opponent, Senate Democratic Floor Leader Gerald A. Neal, D-Louisville, said the bill isn’t necessary and that racism affects people in different ways.
“I’m confused because when I look at the language of this bill, it does not address the issues that you’re talking about. There are already mechanisms in place to address actions that are taken within these institutions that someone may disagree with. There are processes that are in place,” he said.
But Sen. Shelley Funke Frommeyer, R-Alexandria, voted for the bill and recounted her experience when she attended the University of Kentucky in 1991.
“No one knew how great my need was because I’m white,” she said, referencing her large family and the lack of plumbing while growing up on her family farm. “When my niece who’s now a student at UK has to determine and declare constantly whether she’s Black or white, how is that helping serve her actual needs?”
Sen. Danny Carroll, R-Benton, also voted for the measure. He said everyone seems to want the same thing, but each side accuses the other of being wrong.
“It’s amazing how similar the arguments are on both sides of this issue, and to me it seems obvious that we all want the same thing, and maybe it’s bad actors at each level that are garnering all this attention and all these accusations,” he said. “The argument’s the same. The language in this bill protects the exact same thing that the opposition is wanting to protect.”
Information from the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission.