UNM Falls Short on Free Speech Survey

December 25, 2015

By Maggie Shepard at Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Three universities in New Mexico received poor grades for campus free speech, according to a group that advocates for individual rights on campuses.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released its annual report this month, giving red, yellow or green light grades to universities and colleges across the nation based on how restrictive school speech and behavior policies are on campus.

The University of New Mexico received the lowest score, red, while Eastern New Mexico University and New Mexico State University received a middle grade, yellow.

The group surveyed 440 schools across the nation, finding that 49.3 percent of them had “severely restrictive,” or red light, speech codes, according to the report.

The foundation promotes campus policies that do not restrict “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience,” often writing letters and participating in campaigns against schools the group sees as threatening to those rights on campus.

The group wrote to UNM once in 2001 over then-professor Richard Berthold’s comment regarding the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. And it placed the school on its watch list in 2014 in a second case.

In that case, the group says UNM violated free speech rights of a student who wrote anti-gay themes into one of her papers and was then kicked out of class.

The student sued the school, but the case was dismissed, with a federal judge saying the school did not violate the student’s rights. The former student is now appealing the ruling.

Still, the FIRE group said it used these issues and the school’s policies to assign the red light score.

UNM “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. … In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied.”

That policy is the school’s “respectful campus” policy, which lays out the types of persistent bullying behavior the school says it will not tolerate because they contribute to a disrespectful learning environment.

Some of those actions include physical, verbal or anonymous bullying, defined by the policy as repeated mistreatment. Also, the policy says “a respectful campus exhibits and promotes the following values… exhibiting respect for individual rights and differences, demonstrating harmony in the working and educational environment, respecting diversity and difference” and more.

The policy was created in July 2011.

UNM President Bob Frank said that is the exact policy that most protects free speech on campus.

“The University states in our policies that freedom of academic inquiry and freedom of expression are indispensable elements of a university. Our policies also recognize that these freedoms and the accompanying exchange of ideas between listeners, including those that some find offensive, even abhorrent, can only occur in an environment that promotes the values of civility and respect for the opinions of others,” Frank said in a statement this week.

“So the University’s Respectful Campus Policy, which has been criticized by FIRE, is actually an integral part of ensuring that freedom of speech and dissent can continue to thrive at the University of New Mexico.”

But FIRE says the policy is too restrictive and can be vague, allowing enforcement of silencing or punishing protected speech.

Pamina Deutsch, UNM’s policy office director, said she would welcome a review and collaboration with FIRE.

Policies at NMSU and ENMU are less restrictive, the foundation said, earning a yellow light rating.

Schools: Eastern New Mexico University New Mexico State University University of New Mexico Cases: University of Oregon: Student Government Denies Group’s Funding Over Pro-Gun Rights Views