West Virginia Bill Offers Path forward on Higher Ed Free Speech Reform
Over the past few years, free speech rights on college campuses have faced unprecedented challenges. Whether it’s violent mobs preventing conservatives from speaking to student organizations or progressive administrators subverting academic freedom in the name of protecting favored identity groups, it is clear that free expression in higher education is under attack.
One of the most pernicious forms the leftist assault on free speech has taken has come in the form of mandatory “diversity statements” in hiring and admissions processes. The purpose of these forced statements is for a candidate to profess their personal commitment to an institution’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) agenda.
In the past year, Republicans have started to push back. The most notable example has been in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis has led the charge against woke ideology in higher education. However, conservative leaders in other states have also taken up the fight. In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott has banned the use of DEI criteria in hiring practices at public universities, and Republicans in the Kansas legislature are pursuing a similar policy.
Yet perhaps the single best piece of legislation to emerge from the Republican pushback has come out of West Virginia. Republican Delegate Chris Pritt, along with several of his colleagues, filed House Bill 3503, which would ban the use of mandatory diversity statements in admissions and hiring processes while also returning state-run higher education institutions to a position of political neutrality.
When asked about his motivation for filing the bill, Pritt explained the West Virginia legislature needs to ensure “the next generation is prepared for the future and that they are not indoctrinated with values that undermine our historic, shared values. Those values include freedom of expression and equal treatment under the law. As lawmakers we have and should have the ability to ensure those values are preserved at our colleges and universities.”
HB 3503 goes a long way toward ensuring those values are respected at state-run colleges and universities. To start, the bill would prohibit schools from requiring or soliciting “diversity statements” in admissions and hiring processes.
Mandatory diversity statements are becoming increasingly prominent in the higher education space. According to a 2022 survey, DEI criteria are currently incorporated in tenure standards at over 26% of public four-year colleges and universities, while an additional 38.6% are considering incorporating them into hiring practices.
Critics across the political spectrum argue that forced diversity statements are a form of compelled speech and contradict the principles of academic freedom that form the foundation of an institution of higher learning. Additionally, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has noted that diversity statement policies “are commonly authored and imposed by administrators.” This is a clear violation of academic freedom because tenure decisions are supposed to be made by a candidate’s intellectual peers, not random administrators detached from the educational experience.
Fortunately, Pritt’s bill takes concrete steps to mitigate the bureaucratic threat to free expression on campus. HB 3503 would require “that the administrations of public institutions of higher education, and their administrative units, be officially neutral” regarding hotly contested matters relating to social justice politics, including critical race theory, intersectionality, and transgender ideology.
Pritt noted that the size of higher education administrations has “grown exponentially in recent years” and explained his goal is to ensure “these bureaucracies are limited in size and that their purpose is narrowly tailored to the best possible outcome for students, economic or otherwise.”
HB 3503 is well-crafted to protect free expression for all — including those who disagree with Republicans like Pritt on DEI-related matters. Although Pritt desires “to eliminate DEI reeducation and identity politics indoctrination in our college bureaucracies,” he also argued that “allowing candidates or applicants the ability to offer their own diversity statements is consistent with our shared constitutional values like freedom of expression.”
Indeed, the bill explicitly states that nothing in the legislation shall be construed to “prevent an applicant or candidate from providing, on his or her own initiative, any diversity statement.” While this provision specifically protects the right to offer a diversity statement, it also ensures that candidates have the right to provide voluntary faith statements with their applications.
Moreover, the bill does not apply to the content of classroom instruction or the activities of student organizations, ensuring that true freedom of expression will exist on taxpayer-funded campuses. The legislation also clarifies that in no way should its provisions “limit the academic freedom or free expression of any individual faculty member” in the course of their professional work or personal lives. Pritt said that these provisions are “essential to the bill” and said he “would not support legislation that was contrary to ensuring these protections are preserved.”
As Pritt put it, bills like HB 3503 are “not a panacea,” but nonetheless “a step in the right direction.” While the West Virginia legislature was unable to get HB 3503 over the finish line during this year’s legislative session, Republican leaders would be wise to make Pritt’s bill a top priority when lawmakers reconvene in 2024.
Jack Fencl is a West Virginia native and public affairs Associate at The Herald Group in Washington, DC. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.