On March 18, the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Protests, Public Spaces, Free Speech, and the Press at the University of Missouri issued a statement urging the university administration to commit itself to protecting free expression on campus. This is particularly welcome news given the up-and-down year for free speech on the campus.
This past year started out on a positive note for free speech in Missouri. In July, the legislature overwhelmingly passed the Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE), which prohibited public institutions in the state from restricting students’ expressive activity to tiny, misleadingly labeled “free speech zones.” In the fall, many of Mizzou’s students exercised those rights by protesting alleged racial bias on the campus and calling for various reforms. While FIRE is neutral on the merits of the protesters’ complaints, except in those instances when protesters demand censorship, we were pleased to see so many students engaging in expressive activity.
Unfortunately, some members of the university community made national news by attempting to curtail the First Amendment rights of student journalists and critics. Then in November, the University of Missouri Police Department asked “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech” to call the police immediately and photograph the individuals involved, so that the university could “take disciplinary action” against offending students, despite the fact that most “hateful” and “hurtful” speech is protected under the First Amendment. Legislators got into the mix, too.
Now, with the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on Protests, Public Spaces, Free Speech, and the Press’s issuance of a statement recommending the adoption of policies and practices that protect free expression, the campus is poised for another upswing. The statement is modeled closely after the free speech policy statement produced by the Committee on Freedom of Expression at the University of Chicago. As stated by the University of Missouri’s Ad Hoc Committee:
[T]he University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. Individual members of the University community, not the University as an institution, should make their own moral judgments about the content of constitutionally protected speech, and should express these judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.
In January 2015, FIRE endorsed the University of Chicago’s policy statement, and in September we launched a campaign to encourage colleges and universities across the country to adopt the statement for themselves. So far, eleven institutions, including Louisiana State University, Princeton University, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, American University, Chapman University, Winston-Salem State University, the University of Wisconsin System (which includes 26 campuses), the University of Virginia College at Wise, the University of Minnesota, and Columbia University have adopted their own version of the statement. It would be welcome progress if the University of Missouri joined the ranks of institutions making this commitment to free expression.