A ‘Freedom of Expression’ Policy at NM College Comes under Fire

May 29, 2014

By Rob Nikolewski at Capital Report New Mexico

It sounds agreeable enough on the surface: Officials at Northern New Mexico College are about to adopt what’s called a “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression policy” for students and staff.

But the vice president of the student Senate worries the policy may lead the small school of 2,100 students into potential lawsuits.

“My main argument is that it could be done as a guideline but to adopt it in its current form is problematic,” Samuel LeDoux told New Mexico Watchdog. “It’s too broad … it’s just a bunch of buzzwords that don’t mean anything.”

The policy has not been finalized and is open for revision and public comment until June 12. The NMMC board of regents is expected to vote for or against adoption June 20.

“By no means do we want to infringe on anybody’s right to expression or speech,” said Ricky Serna, NNMC’s vice president for Institutional Advancement, said in a telephone interview. “We need to have a policy in place so when the administration works even on the most egregious of offenses they have some policy to protect us legally. If it isn’t written down somewhere, we can’t enforce anything.”

But LeDoux sees problems with the way the policy is worded.

For example, any “planned demonstrations” on campus must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance with the Office of Institutional Advancement.

“But elsewhere in the policy it says it doesn’t apply to spontaneous demonstrations,” LeDoux said. “How do you determine that and who determines what’s spontaneous?”

Serna said the 24-hour rule merely ensures facilities at the college aren’t overwhelmed by a demonstration involving large numbers of people, as well as avoiding logistical concerns.

“We’re a small institution,” Serna said. “We’re very limited for space and we want to make sure that if we’re holding an event or hosting a group that everybody’s activities are coordinated.”

But the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit based in Philadelphia that defends individual rights on college campuses, produced its own critique of the policy.

“It appears students and faculty may face censorship or disciplinary action for not ‘respecting diversity and difference’ (in Section 2 of the proposal), or for failing to promote ‘civility’ and ‘respectful communication’ (Section 3),” Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, wrote in response to questions about the proposal.

Majeed said the policy gives ultimate power to the college’s officials “to define and enforce those broad, amorphous terms.”

The NNMC proposal says the appropriate response to speech that may offend is “speech expressing opposing ideas and continued dialogue, not curtailment of speech” but then adds that “speech activity that unduly interferes with the rights of others or the ability of the College to carry out its mission is not protected by the First Amendment and violates this policy.”

The University of New Mexico — the largest school in the state — has its own “Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression” policy that’s similar to the NNMC proposal. But LeDoux says that doesn’t mean NNMC should adopt it.

“UNM has been under the same kind of scrutiny by free speech organizations like the ACLU and FIRE,” LeDoux said. “Besides, UNM has the financial fortitude to fight lawsuits. NNMC does not.”

Serna says the policy is still going through the vetting process. “We sent these policies out to students and the campus communities,” Serna said. “We solicit the criticism. We’re not trying to be top-down about this.”

The free speech policy debate is the latest in a series of controversies at NNMC.

The school’s faculty entered a “no confidence vote” against the school’s administration in April and has protested a number of moves by the administration, including cutting three vocational programs.

Serna defended the moves, saying the school has been losing money on programs with low attendance, low graduation rates and low career placement rates.

Earlier this month the school spent $5,000 for private investigators. Administrators wouldn’t say why, but an assistant professor told the Albuquerque Journal the money was spent to look into assault charges the professor filed after an alleged altercation with the human resources director.

“It just seems like (the freedom of expression policy) is a response to all the drama from last month,” LeDoux said.

Serna denied that, saying the policy reviews started more than a year ago.

“There’s no question that along the path there’s going to be dissent, and these policies don’t say they’re not allowed,” Serna said. “They say as long as we do that in a professional and appropriate way then all of that is welcome.”

But LeDoux says free speech sometimes doesn’t fall into appropriate or professional categories.

“People do not have the right to not be offended,” he wrote in a letter to the Rio Grande Sun. “In college we discuss very controversial subjects, as we should, because college is where we try to learn to fix our problems, not censor them.