Free-speech policies questioned

August 16, 2010

Students at Mississippi universities may have to watch what they say more than those in other states because of policies that free-speech advocates say are oppressive.

At Ole Miss, someone could theoretically get in trouble for sending an e-mail about how much they "hate" rival Mississippi State.

Jackson State students could be punished for unsolicited flirting.

Speaking freely outside so-called "free-speech zones" on most of the campuses could get students in trouble, even though a federal court has deemed that unconstitutional.

Adam Kissel, of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said the nonprofit group hears from hundreds of college students across the country each year who believe their rights have been violated.

Many of the complaints deal with students who have been prevented from expressing their views on controversial issues such as abortion, gay marriage or affirmative action.

"Students want to be able to advocate their position on the issues," Kissel said. "Unfortunately, the administrators sometimes use their power to shut down one side of the case."

In Mississippi, FIRE recently took up the case of a Hinds Community College student who was punished for saying the f-word as he was walking out of a classroom.

Isaac Rosenbloom said he remarked to another student that a grade he received was going to "f— up" his GPA. His professor overheard the comment and reported him to administrators, who gave him 12 demerits and removed him from the oral communication class, knocking him below the required hours to qualify for financial aid.

The school eventually reversed Rosenbloom’s punishment after FIRE and an attorney got involved.

Hinds, calling the situation a student disciplinary matter, would not comment on the incident.

But Kissel said other Mississippi schools need to work on their free-speech policies.

"If they were challenged in court, the schools would lose," he said.

The biggest problem appears to be vagueness in policies, Kissel said.

The University of Southern Mississippi’s student handbook restricts "expression of profanity, which exceeds the normal standards of decency prevailing in the general Hattiesburg community at large," which could set up a situation like the one at Hinds.

Alcorn State bans "excessive physical annoyance" by anyone on campus or at any Alcorn-related event – meaning rowdy football fans could be accused of harassment under some interpretations.

The University of Mississippi’s Internet usage policy bans any any "hateful" communication.

"So, I can’t write an e-mail that says ‘I hate the Democrats’ or even ‘I hate people who send threatening e-mails’ ?" Kissel said.

The policy also bans "racially (or) ethnically motivated" communication.

"Under this policy, you can’t send out an e-mail saying ‘Come to our ethnic studies meeting’ because that would be racially or ethnically motivated," Kissel said.

As another example, he said it could allow administrators to keep certain groups, like the Black Student Union or international student groups, from sending mass e-mails to members.

"That’s not to say anyone would ever do that, but the University of Mississippi has a long way to go on its Internet usage policy," he said.

Christopher Cox, a senior public policy major at Ole Miss who serves as president of the Black Student Union, doubts most students know about the restrictions or anyone would be punished.

"I’m not sure if anyone looks at it that closely," Cox said. "I really think the university is great about letting students express themselves."

Cox said there is a line between what is legal and what is socially acceptable.

Kissel said that’s one reason most policies don’t get a second look until someone claims their rights have been violated.

"Students can see that the policy means well, but they don’t necessarily think about all the things they would want to say that fall into these categories," Kissel said.

Mississippi State Vice President for Student Affairs Bill Kibler said the university regularly revises its policies to match national trends.

"We have, what I think is probably a pretty up-to-date policy," he said.

In a 2005 revision, MSU eliminated its "free-speech zone," opening the majority of campus for freedom of expression.

MSU also does not require university approval or notification for events.

"As a public institution, we have to reflect the kinds of freedoms that we as citizens of the United States have," Kibler said. "Folks can be offended by a lot of things, but it’s not our place to say that it’s restricted."

FIRE highlights what it deems as particularly bad policies through its "speech code of the month" feature on the group’s website.

Jackson State, Ole Miss and Delta State policies were featured in 2007 and 2008.

JSU Associate Provost Marcus Chanay said the university revised its policies in response to FIRE’s recommendations.

"It wasn’t anything big, but we made those few necessary changes," he said.

FIRE still highlights some JSU policies on its website, but Chanay said the university gives students a good deal of freedom.

"Our students have the right to express themselves as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others," he said. "Normally, that is when students are really belligerent."

Schools: Hinds Community College Mississippi State University University of Mississippi Alcorn State University Cases: Hinds Community College: Student Barred from Class