Northern Officials Pass Resolutions Despite Concerns

August 28, 2014

By Ralph Chapoco at Rio Grande Sun

 Despite concerns from a prominent first amendment rights group and one community member, Northern New Mexico College Board members passed two resolutions at its July 28 Board of Regents meeting.

Nearly all Regent members voted to approve resolutions 2220 and 2240, also known as Freedom of Expression and Dissent and Respectful Campus policies. Board member Donald Martinez was the only one to vote no on both measures.

The two policies regulate what students, faculty and staff may say while affiliated with Northern. They also outline how people should behave, what constitutes bullying or intimidation and the disciplinary actions the administration can take should someone violate those policies.

They were first introduced at the May Board meeting. Northern executives asked the community for feedback regarding the two policies and provided them to Board members for their vote. 

Despite the changes, concerns still remained. Jake Arnold, a local community member, spoke against the resolutions. He made the point the policies stand on week constitutional ground.

Arnold initially wanted to address the Board after the vote to ensure his comments were relevant. If Board members amended the policy or completely redacted them, his input would be moot.

“I think the procedures we have set up are something we need to follow,” Board member Michael Branch said. “I don’t believe we should vary from the procedures from a meeting to meeting basis. If there is a justification for doing it then we come forward and change the rules. I don’t believe we should amend the policy now. I believe Mr. Arnold is articulate enough, understands it (policy) well enough to be able to say what he likes and what he doesn’t like.”

Martinez made a motion to delay public participation until after the vote but no other members would side with him.

Arnold made his comments during the public participation portion of the meeting and was given three minutes to discuss all the issues he wanted to address.

“First, to the Freedom of Expression and Dissent (policy), I think it is absolutely, constitutionally vague,” Arnold said. “I think it is going to cause you problems in the future if you impose a policy like this to impose any disciplinary action against students, faculty and staff. It does not pass constitutional muster.”

Arnold said Northern is inviting problems with initiating the two policies. He emphasized he has experience with these issues and told Regents that, as a public institution, they must permit types of speech they dislike.

He also said, as a public campus, Northern must also permit members of the community to congregate on campus and voice their opinions.

Azhar Majeed, the director of the individual rights program at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, also weighed in.

“These are not really close calls when you are talking about restrictions on uncivil speech or speech that is lacking in respect,” Majeed said. “A lot of that speech might be expression that people don’t like and that personally offends somebody who hears it but, on that basis alone, a public college cannot subject its students and faculty members to disciplinary action.”

Even with public input the two resolutions remained largely unchanged from their previous versions.

Ricky Serna, Northern’s vice president of institutional advancement, retained language that suggested protesters notify the registrar’s office about their event at least 24 hours in advance. He also maintained provisions in the two policies that could potentially discipline those who speak out against the college’s actions.

Martinez motioned for the Board to table the two resolutions to get more clarification regarding the potential consequences they may have but no other member would second his motion.

There was heavy discussion among Board members regarding the two policies.

Regent Kevin Powers asked if there was an immediate need or a pressing time frame to require the Board vote on the resolutions.

“Although they are part of an overall process of renewing the policies, we believe that there has been recent activity that would warrant some sense of urgency behind their approval,” Serna said.

Branch also believes there was a pressing need to institute the two policies.

“The recent disruption at this Board of Regents itself, some of the activities on campus, necessitates us identifying how we do proceed and how we do behave,” Branch said.

Powers also asked if there was a framework from which Northern executives worked. Serna said he and his staff worked off of a policy developed by University of New Mexico. The exact wording of the policies were changed to accommodate the needs of Northern.

Apparently satisfied with the answers, Powers amended Martinez’s motion to table the vote and made a motion to approve all the policies as written.

Even with the passage the situation may not be over for Northern.

“If I am a Board member or somebody else within the university administration, I couldn’t help but think if we enforce this policy against the wrong student or faculty member, who then decides to fight back, we could have basically a public nightmare on our hands where we have to defend it,” Majeed said. “To continue on that line that might subject the institution to a first amendment lawsuit.”