Missouri Republican proposes bill that would revoke scholarships for athletes who strike

To hear free speech scolds tell it, the biggest threats to our First Amendment rights on college campuses are students themselves. In particular, students of color who are tired of feeling unwelcome in their own communities.

This concern was brought into particularly sharp focus last month, when students at the University of Missouri protested an administration that they perceived to be absentee when it came to taking action to change what had long been an openly racist campus culture. The least successful of those protests saw a professor who had joined the student protestors refuse to let a student photographer take pictures of the event. The most successful of those protests saw members of the school’s football team threaten to not play in solidarity with a graduate student who was engaging in a hunger strike. U of M president Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin stepped down shortly following the football players’ move.

Now, Missouri’s state legislature is moving to prevent, or at least put a major hurdle in front of, similar actions in the future.

From the Associated Press:

The bill Republican Rep. Rick Brattin proposed last week in the Missouri House would strip scholarships from any athlete who “calls, incites, supports or participates in any strike.” Colleges and universities would be required to fine coaching staff who encourage or enable such student protests.

Beyond the rather obvious and problematic restriction on students’ speech rights, this bill puts the University in an especially awkward position because it treats students on athletic scholarships like employees of the university — a classification that calls to mind the ongoing debate over whether college athletes (particularly in big-money sports like football) should be allowed to unionize. After all, no one would call it a “strike” if students on academic scholarships staged a walkout from class. Strikes are actions that employees take. They can be regulated as part of a collective bargaining agreement, but first you’ve got to admit that you have employees to bargain with.

This bill also comes on the heels of previous attempts by Missouri state legislators to restrict free speech at the University. Last month, State Senator Kurt Schaefer proposed a bill that would have blocked a Ph.D. student from conducting research for her dissertation, which focused on the effects of Missouri’s mandatory 72-hour waiting period for women who seek abortions.

All this is to say, again, that there are real threats to free speech on American college campuses, specifically the University of Missouri, but that anti-racist college students aren’t the ones posing them.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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