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FIRE’s Sevcenko in ‘St. Louis Post-Dispatch’: Mizzou Should Streamline Speech Policy Draft

Writing in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch today, FIRE Director of Litigation Catherine Sevcenko offers constructive criticism to the University of Missouri regarding the school’s proposed new free speech policy.

Catherine notes that the policy would earn a “green light” rating from us here at FIRE, our highest free speech rating. But she also points out that its sheer length—the draft weighs in at a whopping 30 pages—may have the unfortunate effect of discouraging speech. As Catherine says, the size of the document might make attorneys feel right at home, but “students shouldn’t have to wade through a tome to express themselves.”  

Recognizing that it’s easy to criticize from the sidelines, Catherine and her fellow FIRE attorneys created a streamlined edit of the policy. In her piece, Catherine outlines what we cut:

Our edits took aim at three main sources of lawyerly verbiage.

First, we cut unnecessary provisions. Students don’t need repeated warnings against destroying property, causing injury, creating safety hazards or engaging in other unlawful action. They should presumably know better — and if they don’t, other university regulations already prohibit such behavior.

Second, we dialed down the excessive detail. Trying to anticipate every contingency ends up creating more confusion. The draft policy contains prohibitions banning “flashing signs” and forbidding “demonstrations, protests, rallies, vigils, or assemblies.” What about sit-ins, conferences and get-togethers? Again: Less is more, and a little common sense can go a long way.

Third, we ditched the rules that would just expand the university bureaucracy. For instance, the policy designated seven different “coordinators” who approve use of university space under their control. If a student wants to set up a table outside the student union, she must notify one person; if she wants to do the exact same thing someplace else, she must deal with another administrator. A centralized sign-up system would be easier for students, avoid confusion and make more sense.

To capitalize on their productive start toward protecting student speech, we hope to work with Mizzou to develop a policy that is clear for students and administrators alike.

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