Prohibiting professors from using their titles in Op-Ed pieces is unconstitutional

profRecently-introduced HB 2234 seeks to require all post-secondary institutions in the state to implement a policy preventing their employees from including their official titles when “authoring or contributing to a newspaper opinion column.” In other words, the bill seeks to restrict the speech of those employees, specifically with regard to those employees’ freedom to include their official titles in letters they send to newspapers. As the bill is a content-based restriction on the First Amendment right to free speech, it is unconstitutional, and it should not be approved by the Committee of Education.

Here, the statute is content-based in two respects: it applies only to public employees who work in education and only to those whose opinions appear in print rather than broadcast.  As such, it is subject to strict scrutiny.

When applying strict scrutiny to content-based restrictions on the freedom of speech, the Court must determine the following: (1) whether the regulation furthers a compelling governmental interest and (2) whether the means used are narrowly tailored to accomplish that governmental interest.  See, e.g., Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191 (1992).

The bill’s effect would be to prevent readers of newspaper opinion columns from learning if the author or contributor has a title that might give additional weight to the opinion offered in the column. It is difficult to see any state interest in this result, let alone a compelling one. As there is no compelling government interest, there is no need to analyze whether the restriction is sufficiently narrowly tailored.

The bill’s sponsors would of course have an opportunity to present what compelling state interests the bill might serve, but according to the Topeka Capital-Journal, the “original source of the legislation remains a mystery.”

Given the lack of commitment to this bill, and especially in light of the serious constitutional problems, HB 2234 should be defeated in committee.