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Critical Speech Chilled at Kansas State

It’s sometimes difficult to tell just how pervasive a chilling effect on speech is, since would-be audience members might never know what they’re missing. But an article published in The Topeka Capital-Journal yesterday about a controversy at Kansas State University (KSU) makes clear that KSU and the Kansas Board of Regents have contributed to an atmosphere in which many community members feel unsafe speaking out against university decisions.

KSU athletic director John Currie met with KSU student-athletes’ parents on November 9 to talk about KSU’s decision to end the university’s equestrian program after the 2016 season. Parents in attendance “voiced concerns about the way the meeting was conducted,” and one grandmother of an equestrian protested after being kept out of the meeting. Problems didn’t end there, though—according to the Capital-Journal, many critics of the meeting “didn’t want to be identified because they were afraid of retaliation against their daughters.”

If KSU cares at all about freedom of speech—and it should, as a public institution that’s legally and morally obligated to abide by the First Amendment—it should be troubled that parents perceive the institution as one that will punish students for constitutionally protected speech (or the speech of their parents, even). And parents aren’t alone in their worries. According to the Capital-Journal:

Concerns about retaliation for voicing an opinion on the program extend beyond the athletics department. A university professor who wrote a letter in support of the equestrian team asked not to be named in this story.

“The current board of regents policy would make it unwise for me to comment publicly on the situation,” the professor said in an email. “That policy, in my judgment, represents an abridgement of our First Amendment rights. However, I really do not want to become the test case.”

The professor did not, to FIRE’s knowledge, specify the policy informing his or her decision not to speak out openly, but the Kansas Board of Regents’ vague and overbroad social media policy at the very least contributes to this chilled environment on campus. As I wrote in May, the policy as it was revised in the spring allows the state’s public institutions of higher education to punish or fire faculty members for constitutionally protected speech, including, for example, speech that “impairs … harmony among co-workers.”

Whether or not this is what the professor had in mind, policy changes must be made so that professors, students, and anyone else wishing to remark on university decisions may do so without fear of retaliation.

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