For centuries, institutions of higher education have existed as places of critical thinking. Individuals are exposed to new ideas and pushed to defend their beliefs. The free and open exchange of ideas is not only accepted, but also celebrated. When public universities embrace free expression everyone benefits, including scholars, students and their local communities.

SB 361 was recently introduced in the Oklahoma legislature to protect free expression at our public universities and provide students with an environment where they are able to engage each other in civil debate without fear of official restrictions or sanctions.

The bill will do this by ensuring that the whole of public college and university campuses are themselves “free speech zones,” where students can engage with different points of view and perspectives from their peers, professors and guest lecturers. This diversity of thought will allow students to put into practice the critical thinking skills they are developing.

The measure also provides that students, faculty, and administrators know the rules protecting free speech on their campus by making policies readily available in handbooks and on websites. This is particularly important for individuals who are visiting the campus and trying to get a better understanding of how a university upholds an individual’s First Amendment protections.

Other states are taking similar action to safeguard speech on campus, including neighboring Arkansas, where the legislature unanimously approved a similar measure to make their public colleges and universities campus-wide “free speech zones”. Governor Asa Hutchinson has signed this bill into law.

Free expression is the fundamental right that underpins every other freedom guaranteed by the constitution. History shows that this freedom protects the marginalized, the outsider, those who contest the status quo and combat injustice. And because the group that is in favor today might fall out of favor tomorrow, it’s essential that such protections be viewpoint neutral. Healthy civil discourse makes possible a thoughtful and diverse society.

Matt Ridley, an award-winning author on evolution and genetics, puts it this way, “The chief source of innovation in human society . . . is not the efforts of lonely geniuses thinking in solitude, but simply the exchange of ideas.” By protecting free speech on campus, Oklahoma legislators will be upholding the oath they took when elected to office “…to defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of Oklahoma…”

Julie Daniels is the author of SB361 and represents Senate District 29. John Tidwell is Oklahoma state director of Americans for Prosperity.