McNeese State Revises ‘Public Forum’ Policy But Still Prohibits ‘Derogatory’ Speech

May 29, 2009

One of FIRE’s worst Speech Codes of the Month ever—McNeese State University’s “Public Forum” policy—has been updated in another FIRE victory for the freedoms of speech and association. The policy now clarifies that students on campus enjoy the freedom to protest and demonstrate, a freedom to which they are legally and morally entitled. Long time Torch readers may remember the original policy from July 2007, when we first highlighted it as our Speech Code of the Month. As we wrote at the time,

This public university in Louisiana maintains a set of “Public Forum Regulations” that quarantine free speech to just two areas of campus and place onerous restrictions on the use of those areas. The regulations provide that students may exercise their right to speak and demonstrate—a right guaranteed to students of this public institution by the First Amendment—in just two “zones” … The regulations also state that students may only speak in the zones once per week, for a maximum of two hours; that student groups may only demonstrate “once during each Fall, Spring, and summer session in the assigned demonstration zone only”; that applications to use the zones must be received at least 72 hours in advance; and that the zones may only be used from dawn to dusk, Monday through Friday.

In November 2008, FIRE sent McNeese President Robert Hebert a letter urging him to change the policy. We wrote that

This policy chills expression on McNeese’s campus and ignores First Amendment liberties that McNeese, as a public university, is legally bound to protect. Besides being clearly unconstitutional, McNeese’s “free speech zones” undermine the mission of an institution presumptively committed to intellectual rigor, robust debate, and a free and vibrant community.

In December 2008, Dean of Student Services Toby Osburn replied to FIRE’s letter to let us know that the regulations in question applied only to individuals not affiliated with the university, and that the policy would be clarified to reflect that fact. In January 2009, Osburn again contacted us to let us know that the updated policy was available. That policy now provides that “University students and employees may freely communicate their ideas through the exchange of verbal and written communications and through formal and informal gatherings on the campus at any time,” and explicitly clarifies that the more restrictive regulations apply only to non-university individuals and organizations.

This is very good news for the students of McNeese, who can now feel free to demonstrate and otherwise express themselves anywhere on campus so long as they do not interfere with the university’s ability to operate as an educational institution. Unfortunately, FIRE must still rate McNeese as a “red light” institution because of one other policy in force at the university—a Diversity Awareness Policy that prohibits “The use of any term or the commission of any act that is sexually derogatory.” While McNeese should be commended for taking an important step towards fully protecting free speech on campus, the administration must revise this policy to ensure that students’ and faculty members’ free speech rights are fully protected on campus.

Schools:  McNeese State University