This month, Zack Stoycoff from the Claremore Daily Progress (Oklahoma) has devoted three articles to coverage of FIRE and our recent case at local Rogers State University (RSU). Torch readers might remember RSU stduent Renee Morse-Heenan’s struggle to earn recognition for her group, the Organization for Advancing the Rights of Students (OARS), at RSU this fall. These articles are a welcome update on Renee’s success and the considerable gains for student rights at RSU, but Stoycoff’s reports make clear that Oklahoma schools still need FIRE.
First, the good news: OARS is now operating successfully at RSU, and administrators say that they are updating school policies to address FIRE’s constitutional concerns. In the first article, Stoycoff interviews Renee about her group’s successful efforts since they gained recognition:
Now, [Morse-Heenan's] group – the Organization for Advocating the Rights of Students – is teaching students how to stand up for themselves legally. Beyond that, it’s helping students communicate concerns to administrators.
And her organization plans a sort of organized heist, where members take books or notepads from students – temporarily, if consented – and hand them a paper explaining their rights. The goal is to teach students what to say when their rights are taken away.
That’s why Morse-Heenan created the organization in the first place.
According to Stoycoff, school officials are supporting Renee’s efforts now that the administrator directly responsible for the group’s struggles, Lynn Brown, has left RSU. In the second article, several officials are quoted in support of OARS and student rights at RSU:
"We don’t want to limit freedom of speech," said Jimmy Hart, public relations coordinator. "We want to help students get their views out. We want to be seen as a helping mechanism."
"I think it’s fantastic what Renee is doing," said Misty Smith, director of student development. "I think students are of course more comfortable going to other students with problems."
Stoycoff reports that these administrators are starting to act on their pledges, updating the student handbook "for the first time in five years" and "recording unwritten policies about the student government association and its level of control over student organizations."
FIRE would be pleased to help RSU with revisions until our constitutional concerns are fully resolved. As Peter described on The Torch last month, several student group policies remain unclear at RSU, especially the claim that administrators can control student groups’ Facebook sites. This lack of clarity prompted Renee to start OARS in the first place. As Stoycoff reports in the first article, Renee is still concerned that her fellow students are unaware of their rights on campus:
"Students don’t really think they have rights," Morse-Heenan said. "But it’s almost like students have more rights than anyone at the bottom of the hill."
She feels RSU students live in a "culture of fear" – fear of doing something controversial, being censored by the administration or getting the runaround from administrators – and she wants to change it.
"As a student, you don’t know where the line is. You don’t know what you can or can’t do," she said. "I’m sick of students being afraid. They are the consumer of the product, which is education."
"RSU students or any students automatically assume that if you put the word code on it or policy, that’s the bottom line, and it’s not," she said. "Students are afraid to ask proof about policy because professors won’t know. And they’re afraid student affairs will give them the runaround."
If this is really the case at RSU, we can understand why Renee came to FIRE in her situation. It is implausible to think, as administrators stated to Stoycoff, that Renee could and should have resolved her situation internally. Considering the overly restrictive campus policies and her extensive problems with Brown, why should Renee have trusted other RSU administrators? We stand behind Renee’s decision to get FIRE involved to resolve not just her specific case, but also the systemic issues involving student organizations at RSU.
Stoycoff also published a third article, informing the Claremore community that restrictive speech policies are not limited to RSU. He cites FIRE’s report that 71% of universities surveyed by FIRE maintain unconstitutional policies, and he features Oklahoma’s two red-light schools, the University of Tulsa and Northwestern Oklahoma State University. He also mentions that the two biggest public schools in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma (OU), both maintain yellow-light policies.
Two of Stoycoff’s points bear clarification. First, although he says that OSU and OU are "not failing" by FIRE’s standards, yellow-light policies still restrict free speech and thus produce the kind of chilling effect that Renee cites at RSU. FIRE hopes that all of the schools mentioned will reform their unconstitutional policies. After all, they are public universities bound by the First Amendment to uphold speech rights on campus.
Second, while Stoycoff is right that "private universities are not bound by the first amendment," private universities are morally and legally bound by their own guarantees of free speech, academic freedom, and open discourse on campus. Private schools that contradict their own promises of free speech with restrictive speech codes earn a red-light rating from FIRE (see our ratings for Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, for example).
FIRE appreciates Stoycoff and the Claremore Daily Progress for calling attention to the challenges students face while exercising their rights at RSU and beyond. We will continue to monitor the situation at Rogers State, and we will happily work with any school that wants to achieve a green-light rating. The process can be as simple as a few minor policy changes, as the University of Virginia proved this fall, but it can make a world of difference for students like Renee to know that their rights are fully protected on campus. If students in the Claremore area stand up for their rights and demand reform, Oklahoma can claim the next green-light university.