Mississippi Valley State, Mississippi University for Women continue wave of speech code reform in the Magnolia State

December 16, 2019

FIRE recently reported on Jackson State University becoming our latest (and 52nd overall) “green light” institution. Jackson State’s collaboration with FIRE to revise its speech-related policies helped the state of Mississippi reach a significant milestone: All six of the Mississippi universities that FIRE rates in our Spotlight Database now earn our highest, green light rating for campus speech codes.

Mississippi joins Arizona as the only states in the country where every single college or university rated in FIRE’s Spotlight Database earns an overall green light rating for its policies. 

However, it’s not just those six institutions that are making concrete improvements in the Magnolia State. 

In recent months, FIRE has worked with Mississippi Valley State University and Mississippi University for Women, both four-year public institutions, on their speech-related policies. While these schools may not be in our database, their policy changes pave the way for an improved climate for free expression on their respective campuses, allowing students to speak freely and openly inquire about the issues of the day.

MVSU’s improved policy

MVSU collaborated with FIRE on revisions to its policy on “Free Speech and Peaceful Assembly.” In significant part, the policy now provides that “[t]raditional public forums” on campus, such as “public streets, sidewalks, and similar commons areas,” are available for student expressive activity, “planned or spontaneous.” 

Importantly, this means that students and student organizations have the right to engage in spontaneous, unregistered speech in outdoor, publicly available areas of campus. This protection is vital to students’ ability to meaningfully protest or respond to newsworthy developments that are immediate or still unfolding.

Additionally, MVSU’s policy makes clear that, while individuals unaffiliated with the university are required to provide prior notice to MVSU regarding an assembly on campus, this requirement does not apply to students or student groups “unless their assembly is anticipated to draw 100 or more people.” In other words, the vast majority of small-scale, peaceful student protest or assembly will not be encumbered by being treated under the same umbrella as non-university-affiliated individuals’ expressive activity.

“At Mississippi Valley State University, we believe that the free exchange of information is vital for a holistic educational experience, and we’re committed to providing an atmosphere where diversity of thought and expression of ideas is encouraged,” said La Shon F. Brooks, chief of staff and legislative liaison at MVSU. “We appreciate FIRE for assisting us through the process of ensuring that our policy is reflective of our values.”

MUW takes its own step forward 

MUW, for its part, worked with FIRE to improve its policy on “Free Speech and Assembly.” The public institution designated several “high visibility areas” on its campus (known as “Speaker’s Corners”) in order to “facilitate robust debate and the free exchange of ideas,” and made clear that these areas “may be used without permission from the University.” 

Rather than require students (and others) to provide advance notice or obtain approval prior to engaging in expressive activity in these spaces, the revised policy simply “encourages” them to let the university know ahead of time if they wish to reserve a specific location. As the policy states, this helps to “minimize possible conflicts” with others’ use of the same Speaker’s Corner. 

Moreover, MUW’s new policy expressly provides that the designation of Speaker’s Corners is not meant to be at the exclusion of other areas of campus:

Nothing in this policy shall be interpreted as limiting the right of student expression elsewhere on the campus so long as the expressive activities or related student conduct do not violate any other applicable University policies.

This provision is significant in ensuring that students are able to avail themselves of other locations (particularly outdoor, publicly available spaces on campus) to engage in protest, distribution of literature, and related expressive activity. It also stands in stark contrast to the type of “free speech zone” policies FIRE has seen all too often on college campuses, which restrict students to specific areas and require advance permission.

“I am honored to have had the opportunity to work with FIRE and our campus community on The W’s free speech and assembly policy,” said Karen Clay, university counsel at MUW. “The unencumbered ability to exchange ideas should be the heartbeat of any college campus, and that certainly is true for The W.”

What’s next?

FIRE is glad to see that both of these university administrations have taken important steps to uphold the First Amendment on campus. Students and faculty at both schools should feel confident in exercising their free speech rights, knowing that recent changes to institutional policy have resulted in narrow, well-crafted regulations.

As always, FIRE will continue to work with colleges and universities — nationally as well as in the state of Mississippi — to maintain speech policies that meet First Amendment standards. We look forward to that process, and we invite university leadership to take us up on our offer.