Montana State University Passes New Policy Expanding Areas for Free Speech on Campus

By on October 6, 2011

Students at Montana State University – Bozeman (MSU) will now enjoy a much-improved right to engage in free speech and expressive activity on their campus. That’s because, as reported by the MSU student newspaper The Exponent, the Montana State University Council has passed a revised version of MSU’s Freedom of Expression Policy that appears to greatly expand the availability of campus space for speech activity.

According to the Exponent article,

Previously, free speech zones on campus were only located in front of Montana Hall, in front of Bobcat Stadium and on the sidewalk areas near the fieldhouse entrances. However, the new policy establishes any outdoor area on campus as a free speech zone, provided participants are at least 50 feet from campus buildings.

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The policy states that MSU will accommodate for [sic] First Amendment free speech rights. These rights include the ability to participate in activities such as "assembling, demonstrating, signing and political campaigning," among others.

These strike me as very solid improvements: The university is essentially going from maintaining a few, enumerated free speech zones to making any outdoor area of campus available for free speech and expressive activity, with the exception of areas within 50 feet of campus buildings.

FIRE has long fought the existence of restrictive free speech zones at college and university campuses (from a "free speech patio," to a "free speech gazebo," to a "free speech stage," among other memorable cases), and MSU’s reforms parallel the argument we often make that publicly open areas of campus should by default be available for free speech, with closed-off areas becoming the exception rather than the norm. MSU has seemingly taken this approach to its policy, and we’re happy to see it.

Perhaps just as importantly, the effort to revise the policy was, according to the Exponent, "student-driven," demonstrating a commendable level of campus activism at MSU:

The successful reform effort was led by the MSU Free Speech Initiative, a campus group comprised of sociology students and Professor Wade Cole.

Kudos to these students and to Professor Cole for pursuing free speech reform on their campus!

At the same time, MSU still has a way to go in terms of its other speech codes; the university maintains a red-light sexual harassment policy, as well as some yellow-light policies. Hopefully, the reforms led by the MSU Free Speech Initiative will inspire others in the campus community to work toward further policy changes, and inspire the MSU administration to ultimately make those changes.

Schools: Montana State University – Bozeman