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Aidan Mattis has an ultimatum for Penn State and other state universities across Pennsylvania if they want to keep their millions in state money.
Under a new bill he initiated with Rep. Thomas Sankey (R-Clearfield County), Mattis (sophomore-medieval studies and economics) said higher education institutions must “uphold their students’ and faculties’ rights to freedom of expression” or face defunding. The bill continues a trend of similar campus free speech bills introduced at the state level in Michigan, California, Wisconsin and several others.
When Rhetoric and Civil Life professor Lori Bedell tasked her classes with advocating for a passionately held belief, Mattis knew he wanted to address what he views as a crisis for free speech on campuses. He perceived a general uptick in “anti-free speech activity” post-2016 election, especially with universities blocking speakers from campus or failing to protect them from violence.
However, the UC Berkeley riots of February 2017 convinced Mattis that Pennsylvania needed legislation to stop what he considers a culture of censorship. Opponents of self-described “alt-right fellow traveler” Milo Yiannopoulos assaulted members of Berkeley College Republicans and Trump supporters who assembled to hear Yiannopoulos speak.
According to Mattis, the university police did little to stop the rioters, who succeeded in forcing Berkeley to cancel the event.
While state institutions already have a constitutional obligation to protect First Amendment rights, Mattis said Pennsylvania’s current laws do nothing to enforce that obligation. For his advocacy project, he decided to change the situation by writing a bill.
“Until there is a new law that really has quantifying consequences for the university, they’ll continue to do whatever they want,” Mattis said. “What we’re doing now is not making it illegal, we’re just punishing people for breaking the law.”
Bedell said the advocacy project teaches students the skills they need to create the change they wish to see — an important part of their transition to adulthood.
“It’s a way for students to find their identity and present their ideas in the world,” Bedell said. “We do a pretty good job of helping them realize that they can be passionate about something and that passion can be involved in something really productive and active.”
After Sankey spoke to Turning Point USA at Penn State, Mattis shared his idea for a free speech bill and Sankey agreed to sponsor the bill in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly. Members of Sankey’s staff then revised Mattis’ draft of the bill and sent it to committee, where it has remained until now, the text inaccessible to the public.
According to Mattis, the bill’s provisions allow students or organizations on campus to file complaints against their institutions of higher learning in state court if they believe the institution has censored their legally protected speech. Legally actionable offenses include establishing free speech zones on campus, penalizing “hate speech,” charging prohibitively high security fees for events or banning student groups because of ideology.
If the court finds the institution guilty, it has six years to change its policies before losing access to state funding. Penn State currently receives over $250 million annually from the state, an amount which makes up around 10 percent of its budget.
Although he admits his proposal creates a “carrot and stick” model with state funding, Mattis said he hopes to reform higher education rather than gut it.
“The idea is not to defund anybody,” Mattis said. “The idea is for universities to stop coddling children and turn them into spaces for debate that is the root of what the university is.”
In his time on campus, Mattis has observed what he believes are serious disparities between reality and Penn State’s stated commitment to free speech. A founding member of Turning Point USA at Penn State, he claims the university rejected the group’s constitution five times before finally accepting it once Turning Point threatened to sue. He also said Penn State’s policy of designated free speech zones violates the Constitution because of the university’s affiliation with the state.
During the fall semester, Turning Point protested free speech zones by rolling a giant beach ball around campus, asking students to write whatever they wanted on its surface. Mattis said the diversity of messages on the ball confirms that free speech is a nonpartisan issue.
“What that showed us was that people from every end of the political spectrum like free speech and there’s really no reason that the bill should not pass for that reason,” Mattis said. “For these congresspeople — their constituents are for it — and if they vote against it, it’s tyranny.”
Bryan Koflanovich said free speech at Penn State does, and should, come with limits.
“I believe in free speech, after all that’s what our country was founded on,” Koflanovich (freshman-psychology and economics) said. “Things like hate speech and anti-religious groups forming on campus just aren’t acceptable. The university has a role in preventing that.”
Although unable to comment on Mattis’ project specifically, Bedell said she feels the RCL course and advocacy project empower students.
“[The project is] a huge inspiration, people can listen to me and care about what I have to say,” Bedell said.