Ohio lawmakers have failed, at least for now, to pass a bill that would exert control over discussion of “controversial beliefs” about climate policies in college classrooms.

Ohio House Speaker Jason Stephens, a Republican, said this week that the bill doesn’t have enough support to pass the House, where it has sat for months following passage in the Senate.

Senate Bill 83 contains a wide-ranging set of rules for public colleges and universities, including bans on most diversity training and new requirements that alternative viewpoints on such topics as climate policies, immigration and abortion are discussed. Its main sponsor, Sen. Jerry Cirino, a Republican, said he was taking on the “woke fiefdom” of higher education.

The bill faced intense opposition from faculty, students, environmental groups and unions, leading to hours-long hearings over several months. Supporters of the bill made many changes to attempt to find a version that could pass, including the removal of language that banned strikes by higher education unions, but it wasn’t enough.

A provision dealing with “controversial beliefs or policies” remained in the bill, which helped to inspire resistance from people who teach and study science; they warned that Ohio’s public colleges and universities would be impaired in their ability to teach climate science.

“So many people have come out against this bill and have pushed back and have rallied, not only against this bill, but so much other harmful legislation, that I think it’s given me hope,” said Keely Fisher, a Ph.D. student in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at Ohio State University.

She spoke to Inside Climate News in May about how the bill made her wonder if she belonged in Ohio. Now she feels pride in the way her faculty and classmates and those at other universities defended their ability to do research unfettered by this regulation, she said.

Keely Fisher, an Ohio State University graduate student, says efforts to defeat the state's restrictive higher education bill have made her feel hopeful. Credit: Dan Gearino
Keely Fisher, an Ohio State University graduate student, says efforts to defeat the state’s restrictive higher education bill have made her feel hopeful. Credit: Dan Gearino

Ohio Rep. Casey Weinstein, a Democrat, said he is not surprised to see the bill has failed to pass based on his conversations with Republican colleagues who were uncomfortable with various parts of it. Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of the Ohio General Assembly.

“In Ohio, we love our universities, so the fact that they’re attacking and potentially striking blows against our beloved public universities that are so critical to our workforce and our economy, that was a tough hill to climb,” he said.

Cirino, the lead sponsor, testified before a House committee in May and faced questions from Weinstein, who asked how the measure would affect the teaching of the Holocaust. While Cirino didn’t endorse inaccurate views of how the Holocaust should be taught, Weinstein said he is troubled that the bill seems to open the door to treating Holocaust denial as just another point of view.

“I don’t think he did himself any favors by, unfortunately, being honest about his bill and saying that he was trying to ‘both sides’ slavery, 9-11 and the Holocaust,” Weinstein said.

Cirino did not respond to a request for an interview.

The bill says “faculty and staff shall allow and encourage students to reach their own conclusions about all controversial beliefs or policies and shall not seek to inculcate any social, political, or religious point of view.”

The bill then lists examples of controversial topics, including “climate policies, electoral politics, foreign policy, diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, immigration policy, marriage, or abortion.”

A previous version of the bill referred to “climate change” instead of “climate policies.” Cirino changed it in response to concerns that the measure would regulate the teaching of climate science, but opponents said the bill would continue to impair teaching about climate change even with the new wording.

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Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, has been monitoring the Ohio legislation and is pleased to see that it doesn’t appear likely to pass. His organization, based in California, opposes threats to the accuracy of science education in K-12 schools and higher education.

The Ohio bill is “trying to sweep up higher education into the culture wars that Cirino and his supporters want to pursue,” he said. “Climate change is a fairly minor battlefield for them in the culture wars, but it is, indeed, part of what they want to fight about.”

He said attacks on science education at public universities are much less common than what he sees happening in K-12 schools.

For example, his organization has been working to oppose efforts before the Texas State Board of Education to restrict the use of textbooks that accurately describe climate change and evolution.

Branch said the Ohio bill was so brazen and it offended so many interest groups, including labor unions, people of color and science educators, that it was not difficult to defeat. Other threats to science education are harder to fight.

But policy ideas can always come back in new forms, so there remains a possibility that Cirino or some other Ohio lawmaker could pursue aspects of this bill again. Senate President Matt Huffman, whose chamber passed the bill in the spring and still supports it, said this week that he will continue to push for the measure.

If that happens the coalition that opposed it will be ready to respond.

Fisher, the Ohio State student, said she welcomes not having to worry about the legislation for a while.

“It is this weight off my shoulders that I didn’t know I needed,” she said.



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