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University of Missouri adopts commitment to free speech, new guidelines on campus expressive activity

In a welcome development for students’ and faculty members’ First Amendment rights, the University of Missouri, Columbia (Mizzou) has adopted both a policy statement committing the university to free speech principles as well as a series of policies related to free expression, assembly, and protest designed to provide robust protections for campus expressive activity.

Mizzou, of course, made national headlines when student protests broke out on campus in the fall of 2015. In addition to drawing attention to their cause, the student protesters’ expression highlighted the need to improve protections for freedom of speech at colleges and universities throughout the country.

Yesterday, Mizzou did just that.

First, in a policy statement committing the university to free speech principles, Mizzou affirms that “[f]reedom of expression is indispensable to a university’s ability to transmit knowledge and is fundamental to the ability of members of a university community to discover, explore, interpret, and question knowledge.” The statement goes on to provide that “the 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.”

This policy statement is based largely upon the University of Chicago’s “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” better known as the “Chicago Statement.” As our readers know, FIRE has touted the Chicago Statement as a model free speech policy statement and, since its introduction in 2015, we have urged colleges and universities across the country to follow the University of Chicago’s lead by similarly committing themselves in official policy to open inquiry and robust debate.

We are pleased that Mizzou has become the latest institution to adopt its own variation of the Chicago Statement. Not only are students and faculty members at Mizzou better off for it, but we hope the policy’s adoption will inspire other schools to act similarly.

In addition to this policy statement, Mizzou has adopted a series of policies that uphold the right of students and professors to engage in peaceful protest, demonstrations, and other expressive activity protected by the First Amendment. Mizzou’s new “Use of Facilities & Public Spaces” policy, for example, provides that “[u]niversity employees, students, and student organizations may engage in unscheduled expressive events and activities in outdoor areas of the campus” with limited exceptions, and further states:

The University is committed to protecting the rights of expression, assembly, protest, and dissent and to making its facilities and grounds available for these activities.  Protecting impromptu and spontaneous assembly for the purpose of expression, protest, and dissent is essential to fulfilling this commitment.

Accompanying these policies are a document of “Guiding Principles” as well as answers to “Frequently Asked Questions,” both of which will be helpful to students seeking to understand and clarify their free speech rights on campus.

Mizzou’s adoption of the policies is also consistent with the state of Missouri’s Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE Act), which FIRE worked on with members of the state legislature in 2015. The CAFE Act prohibits public colleges and universities in the state from restricting student expressive activity to campus “free speech zones.” It is gratifying to FIRE that Mizzou, the state’s flagship public university, has complied with the CAFE Act in this manner, hopefully prompting other public institutions in the state to follow suit.

Both the policy statement committing the university to free speech as well as the policy on Use of Facilities & Public Spaces will receive FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating. However, Mizzou still maintains a few “yellow light” policies that we would love to work with the university to revise in order to meet First Amendment standards. We hope the adoption of Mizzou’s policy statement and new policies will be a starting point for the university to achieve an overall green light rating for all of its policies — something no institution in the state of Missouri has accomplished to this point.

Likewise, we hope this will inspire the other institutions within the University of Missouri system — such as the University of Missouri, Kansas City and the University of Missouri at St. Louis — to look to bolster their own policies and procedures on free speech.

As always, FIRE is available to assist with the necessary policy revisions. In the meantime, we commend Mizzou for taking important steps to improve its protections for student and faculty expression.

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