Northern’s ‘Respectful Campus’ Policy Questioned

June 5, 2014

By Ralph Chapoco at Rio Grande Sun

 On May 19, a civil liberties group weighed in on two of Northern New Mexico College’s resolutions that were introduced to the Board of Regents.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group founded in 1999 that specializes in civil rights issues on school campuses, had some concerns, but also expressed positive sentiments about the College’s Respectful Campus and Freedom of Expression and Dissent Resolutions.

In an email to Samuel LeDoux, a current student and the sitting vice president of the Northern New Mexico College’s Student Senate, Azher Majeed, the nonprofit’s individual rights education program director, had some apprehension about Northern’s Respectful Campus Policy.

LeDoux notified the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education because he was concerned the two resolutions infringed on students, staff and faculty’s civil liberties and did not believe they should be adopted.

“And yes, I do have major concerns about the proposal.”  LeDoux said. “I believe it violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

One of LeDoux’s big concerns is the language of the policy. He believes the terms are very loosely defined and broad so that just about anything anyone says or writes can be considered “offensive” or be interpreted as “bullying.” And since the proposal can come with administrative action, LeDoux believes this policy can be used to punish those who do not side with the administration.

“Based on some of the College’s past history involving people speaking out, I just think that this policy could be used to reprimand students who don’t necessarily agree with the college,” LeDoux said.

Majeed said the policy would be acceptable from a First Amendment Rights perspective if the college made it clear that item resolutions were meant as guidelines and were not mandatory measures, but Majeed fears the language in the resolution does not reflect that.

Majeed expressed another concern that the resolution’s broad and unclear language.

“Thus, it appears students and faculty may face censorship or disciplinary action for not ‘respecting diversity and difference’ (section 2), or for failing to promote ‘civility’ and ‘respectful communication’ (section 3), however the college chooses to define and enforce those broad, amorphous terms,” part of the email read.

Another concern has to do with potential verbal abuses that individuals may direct toward others and the college. Although such actions may be harmful, that type of speech is protected under the First Amendment and college campuses should oblige.

“Elsewhere, the policy prohibits making ‘unduly personal attacks’ (section 3), ‘verbal abuse … that creates or promotes an adverse or counterproductive environment’ (section 5), and speech that ‘adversely affect[s] dignity’ (section 5). While this type of speech may be unpleasant, much of it is protected by the First Amendment, and therefore must be protected by a public college,” Majeed wrote.

The group also had one concern with section 4.1 of Northern’s Freedom of Dissent and Expression Resolution. Those who wish to organize on Northern’s campus must schedule their protest in advance.

The Resolution says, “Users must schedule such events with the Office of Institutional Advancement at least twenty-four (24) hours in advance.”

The group would prefer that part of the policy be taken out.

“However, the college would be well served to remove the requirement in section 4.1 that ‘planned demonstrations’ must be scheduled at least 24 hours in advance,” Majeed added.

On the flip-side, the group was encouraged by the college’s Freedom of Dissent and Expression Resolution, since the language in the resolution has more to do with guidelines rather than requirements that people behave in a certain way, and demonstrates the College’s commitment to freedom of speech.

“On the positive side, the college’s “Freedom of Expression and Dissent” strongly recognizes the right to engage in free speech all over campus, and only “encourages” (rather than requires) students to register their expressive activities with the college (see section 4),” Majeed added.

However, Ricky Serna, Northern New Mexico College’s vice-president of institutional advancement defends the two policies and stated that a review of the College’s policies was long overdue.

“So a year and a half ago, we had sat down and we wanted to embark on this project to update all of our institutional policies because anybody that would go through our policy manual, it was pretty dire, it was pretty bad,” Serna said.

These specific policies were not developed by just him and were not the result of the recent actions of some of the students and faculty, but had been in the process of being finalized for some time, Serna said.

Northern has finalized many of the campus’ policies, but the two in question still needed to be settled. Therefore, they were introduced as resolutions and if they choose, students, faculty and staff have input and can submit their proposed changes to the two resolutions before they are passed onto the president of the College and eventually to the Board of Regents.

“So then we take those policies and we put them out into the campus community and we say we want them. We just want public input,” Serna said.

He also highlighted why these two specific policies are necessary.

“I think we have some concerns about the lines that get crossed with freedom of dissent, respectful campus, and bullying (on) the campus,” Serna said. “We even have some concerns that are prompting us to look at the social media policy that the University of Kansas has now passed as well, because a lot of that is taking place on social media.”

The campus has 30 days to review the two resolutions and submit its inputs to the administration. The College will review all of the input and edit the two resolutions if needed before finalizing it and sending if to Northern President Nancy “Rusty” Barceló and then to the Northern’s Board of Regents.