Student engagement at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) has been in the spotlight for months, but apparently not everyone is happy about that.
Last week, the Higher Education Appropriations Committee of the Missouri House of Representatives voted to penalize Mizzou by withholding a 2 percent budget increase given to all of the other public institutions of higher education in the state.
Legislators generally have wide latitude to set state appropriations for public institutions of higher education. But at least one member of the committee expressly cited student activism as her primary motive for the vote.
Justifying the decision, committee chairwoman Donna Lichtenegger explained, “They are there to learn, not to protest all day long. I thought we learned that lesson in the ’60s. Obviously we haven’t.” It’s hard to see this as anything other than an attempt to discourage student activism and enlist Mizzou’s administration into (most likely unconstitutional) efforts to curtail student speech.
Lichtenegger’s statement is reminiscent of that made by a University of Hawaii at Hilo administrator who told students protesting actions by the National Security Agency that they could only do so if they were standing in that university’s free speech zone. The administrator there said, “This isn’t really the ’60s anymore” and “people can’t really protest like that anymore.” This led to one of the lawsuits in FIRE’s Stand Up For Speech Litigation Project, and in December 2014, the university settled the lawsuit for $50,000 in attorneys’ fees and damages.
FIRE opposes attempts by elected officials to stifle discussion at public universities by threatening their funding. In 2014, for example, we wrote a letter to South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley urging her to reject a budget that would have punished the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate for including LGBT content in the reading program curriculum. As we stated to Governor Haley, “Americans famously and rightfully prize freedom of speech and academic freedom and look suspiciously upon those who, rather than engage in debate on the merits of their ideas, seek to stop that debate from happening at all.”
While we take no position on the merits of the student protests at Mizzou, we are always pleased to see students exercise their right to free speech. In fact, that is why we worked with Missouri legislators last year to pass the Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE), which prohibits public universities like Mizzou from quarantining speech to tiny, misleadingly labeled “free speech zones.” We hope the Missouri legislature will return its focus to ways it can expand student and faculty rights.