In today’s edition of The Clarion-Ledger, the Jackson, Mississippi newspaper reports on speech codes maintained at public colleges statewide. Spurred by FIRE’s recent victory at nearby Hinds Community College, reporter Elizabeth Crisp writes:
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."
Assisted by FIRE’s Adam Kissel, who was interviewed for the article, Crisp reviews the implications of some of the state colleges’ vague policies:
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.
Crisp also reports on the way in which FIRE’s work has resulted in positive policy reform on at least one state campus:
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.
Hopefully, Crisp’s reporting will prompt more universities in Mississippi to follow the lead of Mississippi State University, which dismantled its free speech zone in 2005:
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."
Kibler’s absolutely right, of course: Public colleges in Mississippi are bound to uphold the First Amendment rights of their students, and mere offense is no grounds for restricting protected speech. We thank The Clarion-Ledger for highlighting some of the state’s more egregious speech codes, and we hope that this journalistic sunlight will prompt some much-needed campus policy reform. As always, FIRE stands ready to help – I’m looking at you, University of Southern Mississippi! Drop me a line and let’s discuss how we can get your campus in compliance with the First Amendment.