A bill that opponents said would have stopped public universities from extending new anti-harassment protections to LGBT students went down to defeat in the Kansas Senate on Thursday.
The overall bill was aimed at protecting free speech on college campuses and would have limited speech restrictions.
Senators tied on the bill 20-20, meaning that it was defeated.
Support for the bill appeared to fall in the hours before the vote after The Eagle questioned lawmakers about the harassment provisions. The legislation had easily won approval during a first-round voice vote Wednesday.
Under the bill, Wichita State University and other Kansas schools would have been unable to have anti-harassment policies that go beyond protections at the federal, state and local level. The federal government and Kansas have no law barring harassment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
"That means the school can’t effectively discipline students who would harass others because of their gender identity or sexual orientation and I think that is a real big problem," said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka.
Supporters of the legislation said the bill was needed to protect free speech on campus. The bill prohibits any restrictions of free speech to certain areas of a campus and bars universities from denying student fee funds to groups on the basis of viewpoints.
During the vote, Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said it had been presented to her "within the last hour" that it was a possibility that not all students had their free speech protected in the bill.
"I still voted for this bill because it is our intent, those of us that are voting for this bill, to protect the speech of all students no matter their race, their color, their creed, their gender identity or their sexual orientation," Wagle said.
Senate Bill 340 said schools shall have a policy about student-on-student harassment. The bill defines student-on-student harassment as unwelcome conduct toward a person that is "discriminatory on a basis prohibited by federal, state or local law and that is so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an education opportunity or benefit."
What exactly that meant wasn’t clear, said Micah Kubic, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas. He said the language could be interpreted in different ways.
For example, when the bill refers to "law" does that mean actual statute or interpretations by regulatory agencies? He also noted the federal hate crimes law includes sexual orientation and gender identity in the list of protected classes for the purpose of hate crimes.
"I’m not trying to punt here. It really is unclear to me what they intend to cover" with that provision, Kubic said.
Lawrence, where the University of Kansas is located, has a non-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Manhattan also has an ordinance but exempts Kansas State University.
Wichita does not have a non-discrimination ordinance covering sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Board of Regents, which governs public colleges and universities in Kansas, did not take a position on the bill, said spokesman Matt Keith.
Davis Hammet, president of Loud Light, an organization that promotes civic engagement among young people in Kansas, said the legislation takes away power from universities. It also redefines student harassment to a "really narrow" view that excludes LGBT students, he said.
"It is a pro-discrimination bill. It creates a really toxic campus climate, a dangerous campus climate," Hammet said.
Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican who carried the bill, rejected that idea.
"Until the state recognizes that as a class, why would you allow public institutions to expand beyond what the state would allow," Masterson said.
Several states have considered campus free speech bills. In recent years, conservatives have expressed concern with restrictions of speech on college campuses nationwide. Groups like FIRE advocate against speech limitations on campus.