Higher Education

In free-speech report, OU pretends lawsuit doesn’t exist

January 11, 2022

Ray Carter

When Oklahoma legislators approved a 2019 law protecting college students’ free-speech rights, they included a requirement for state colleges to publicly post an annual report that includes “a description of any barriers to or incidents of disruption of free expression occurring on campus.”

Since that law passed, the University of Oklahoma has been sued by former OU women’s volleyball player Kylee McLaughlin, who says volleyball coaches forced athletes to engage in “discussions about white privilege and social justice” in 2020 and retaliated against her when she expressed disagreement with some political claims put forth in those discussions. That lawsuit remains ongoing.

How have OU officials dealt with that lawsuit in their annual free-speech report? By pretending it doesn’t exist.

In the latest “Expressive Speech Annual Report Submitted on behalf of The Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma,” OU officials declare, “None of the Board’s constituent institutions experienced any barriers or disruptions of free speech during the calendar year ending December 31, 2021.” That language is identical to the report issued on behalf of the regents in 2020.

Sen. Julie Daniels, a Bartlesville Republican who authored the campus free-speech law, said OU’s actions show the need to strengthen the law.

“The reporting language was fairly broad and not very specific,” Daniels said. “And we need to address reports that say there were no substantial barriers.”

She said the law should be revised to ensure reports issued by colleges are “useful and indicative of what’s going on on campus.”

OU’s free-speech report is drawing scorn from one national watchdog organization.

“We seriously doubt that over the course of twelve months there was not one single instance of a report of one of OU’s 28,000 students or 2,000 faculty members facing barriers to, restrictions on, or investigations concerning their speech,” said Adam B. Steinbaugh, director of the Individual Rights Defense Program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “It’s not hard for anyone else to find them.”

Steinbaugh noted several high-profile issues that have arisen at OU in recent years, including McLaughlin’s lawsuit and a university policy that allows staff to require students to remove “offensive” or “inappropriate” window displays.

“The University of Oklahoma might disagree with those reports, but declaring that none exist should raise some eyebrows,” Steinbaugh said. “We can all see the man behind the curtain.”

OU officials did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

When the campus-free-speech law was enacted, Daniels said lawmakers were concerned about outside special-interest groups or affiliated student organizations interfering with the free-speech rights of other students on campus. Since then, however, universities have increasingly embraced mandates through their “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) bureaucracies that often directly target the free-speech rights of students.

“I never anticipated that the harassment that would lead to a violation of a students’ free-speech rights would be carried out by the administration or staff carrying out the directive of the administration, that the DEI policy would direct the staff to harass a student,” Daniels said. “It turns the whole concept of a university education on its head and turns it into a farce.”