Alabama, Mississippi Colleges Cited For Free Speech Infringement Policies

March 6, 2015

By Johnny Kampis at MississippiWatchdog.org

CULLMAN, Ala. — At Athens State University in Alabama, students can’t transmit online anything deemed “threatening,” annoying” or “offensive.”

At the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, student organizations must register with the Office of Student Activities a month in advance before conducting protests or demonstrations.

These policies earned those schools a “red light” rating this year from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which issues an annual report examining free speech on the nation’s college campuses.

Seventy percent of colleges and universities in Alabama and Mississippi examined by the Philadelphia-based FIRE received red light ratings — 10 of 14 in Alabama and four of six in Mississippi.

On the flip side, the University of Mississippi in Oxford and Mississippi State University in Starkville got green light ratings, giving the Magnolia State two of only 10 schools in the United States to get the designation that means campus policies do not threaten free expression.

Overall, 55 percent of the 437 public and private schools across the country examined received red-light designations for policies that FIRE argues “clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.”

View a state-by-state map here.

Azhar Majeed, an attorney at FIRE, told Watchdog.org numerous schools have campus speech codes like Athens State that include broad restrictions. He said while some students and staff on college campuses might find offensive certain racist or sexist speech, “the vast majority of that type of language is protected by the First Amendment.”

Another common speech-restricting issue on college campuses is the implementation of free speech zones, limiting protests or demonstrations to only one or two areas on campus and sometimes requiring preregistration.

Majeed said USM gets high marks for allowing protests on five areas of its campus and not requiring individuals to notify the school in advance. But that same policy requires the aforementioned one-month notice by student organizations.

Imagine a group not being allowed to protest until September the shooting death by a police officer of unarmed civilian Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, which took place in August.

Majeed said the policy on organizations “contradicts the spontaneous, unregistered speech” afforded individuals.

FIRE sent letters to 300 colleges and universities last September warning them they could be in violation of the First Amendment through their campus speech policies.

USM is among those who responded, Majeed said, and is working with FIRE to tweak its policy on free-speech zones.

Joe Paul, vice president for student affairs at USM, told Watchdog.org via email Thursday the school reached out to FIRE to ask how it could “get off of ‘red light,’” and received suggestions such as those mentioned by Majeed.

“The next move for us will be to pull together student affairs staff to evaluate and potentially implement the suggestions,” Paul wrote.

Other Mississippi schools that got red light ratings were Alcorn State, Delta State and Jackson State. Alabama schools on FIRE’s naughty list included Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Jacksonville State, Troy, South Alabama, West Alabama and University of Alabama campuses in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.

Schools: University of Southern Mississippi Athens State University