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Missouri Universities Ask Students to Report ‘Hurtful’ Speech to Police

A troubling administrative response to recent student protests at the University of Missouri was issued on Tuesday, with the University of Missouri Police Department (MUPD) asking “individuals who witness incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech” to call the police immediately and photograph the individuals involved, allowing the university to “take disciplinary action” against offending students. Today, another university, Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO), published an almost identical statement.

FIRE wrote to Mizzou’s chancellor, vice chancellor for student affairs, and the MUPD yesterday to share our concerns about the MUPD’s statement and to remind Mizzou of its obligation to the First Amendment:

At a public university legally and morally bound to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students, the police department’s statement is deeply problematic. There is no question that a great deal of “hateful and/or hurtful speech” is protected by the First Amendment, and that punishing students whose speech is determined to meet such a troublingly vague and subjective standard will violate students’ constitutional rights.

As we’ve stated before, police must investigate true threats. True threats, like the ones made this week at Mizzou, are not protected speech, and campus police’s main goal should be safeguarding students from physical violence. But by asking students to report hateful or hurtful speech, campus police are essentially giving students the opportunity to report any protester who offends them.

There’s a very good chance that both supporters and critics of the Concerned Student 1950 protests have heard words or ideas that—although protected by the First Amendment—have greatly offended them. Passionate protests often result in offense. But it is not a university’s place, morally or legally, to investigate comments solely on the basis that they hurt other students’ feelings. Our letter explains further:

What’s more, the University of Missouri itself is at the center of one of the Court’s most famous decisions applying this principle specifically to the public university campus. In Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the Court held that “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” That case memorably upheld the rights of journalism student Barbara Papish to distribute a newspaper featuring a cartoon depicting police officers raping the Statue of Liberty and the Goddess of Justice, as well as an article titled “Motherfucker Acquitted.”

Flag desecration, funeral protests, and cartoons of the kind distributed by Papish are without question considered “hateful” or “hurtful” by some, even by many. With passions running high at Mizzou in the midst of important discussions and debates on the topics of race, equality, and justice, it is quite likely, if not inevitable, that some exchanges were and will be considered hateful or hurtful. It is crucial that students be able to carry out such debates without fear that giving offense will result in being reported to the police and referred for discipline by the university. Indeed, the expectation that the right of students to fully express themselves on the Mizzou campus will be respected is part of what has made the demonstrations of the last few weeks possible. Mizzou must not now turn its back on the very rights that have enabled so many students to find their voices and persuade other students to join in their cause.

We’ve called on Mizzou’s administration to explain to its students that they do not need to fear censorship, investigation, or punishment from the university simply for exercising their First Amendment rights:

FIRE asks that the University of Missouri issue a statement clarifying that it will not discipline students merely because their speech may be considered subjectively “hateful” or “hurtful,” and that it will fully uphold students’ First Amendment rights as required by the Constitution. Such a clarification will in no way interfere with the university’s ability to adjudicate unprotected expression, such as unlawful harassment and true threats.

Unfortunately, Southeast Missouri State University is also jumping on the unconstitutional bandwagon. Yesterday, SEMO president Carlos Vargas announced that he “encourages all students at Southeast who feel they have been the victim of hateful and or hurtful speech to report those incidents to the Department of Public Safety (DPS) or campus administrators.” SEMO, a public university, also cannot punish students for causing offense for the same reasons as those stated in our letter to Mizzou.

We hope this is not the beginning of a larger trend, and that these two are the only universities to make this mistake. Mizzou and SEMO cannot legally punish students for protected speech and must immediately clarify this to students. Otherwise, they risk chilling important campus dialogue and violating the law.

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