When a university changes a policy following criticism from FIRE, they often tell us either that the policy was under review already—what a coincidence!—or that they had already updated the policy, but had simply failed to post the new one online. In fact, it’s a long-running joke among members of FIRE’s policy review team that our unofficial slogan should be “That policy was already under review.”
Generally speaking, universities typically reserve this excuse for correspondence between FIRE and university officials, or maybe a stray remark to a newspaper. The student newspaper at Southwest Minnesota State University (SMSU), however, has taken things to a new level, accusing FIRE of making false allegations against the university.
In November 2015, FIRE named SMSU our “Speech Code of the Month” for a ban on cultural intolerance then located in the university’s Prohibited Code of Conduct. You can see here how that policy appeared on the university’s website as of September 2015. Although that policy is dated 2012, universities commonly update their policies every few years, so appearing as it did on the front page of the university’s judicial affairs website, FIRE—and SMSU students—had every reason to believe it was a fully operative and current policy.
Of course, when the university let us know it had subsequently been changed, we immediately marked the Speech Code of the Month as “revised” and updated SMSU’s entry in Spotlight, our speech code database. The response from the university’s spokesperson was typical:
According to SMSU Dean Scott Crowell, the revision was long overdue because SMSU hasn’t actually used the “cultural intolerance” rule for years. SMSU never got around to updating everything on its site.
“Once they told us they had found this, we went out, found it, and had IT scrub it,” Crowell says. “We didn’t change it because of what FIRE did.”
That’s fine. Whatever the university wants to say happened, so be it. We’re just happy the restrictive policy is officially off the books.
We figured that was the end of the story—until a few days ago, when I received a call from a reporter at SMSU’s newspaper, The Spur, asking me about the “false allegations” FIRE had made about the university. Fortunately, since FIRE meticulously catalogs every piece of information we cite, I was able to point him to the fact that the cultural intolerance policy had indeed been on the university’s website at the time the piece was written.
While this put an end to the reporter’s attempt to attack FIRE’s integrity, his final article still harps on the idea that this was an “old document” that was “not in effect” when we wrote about it. The problem, however, is this: prior to November 20, 2015 (when SMSU’s conduct code was officially updated on its judicial affairs website), a student looking for SMSU’s conduct regulations would have found the version FIRE found, complete with the prohibition on cultural intolerance—and presumably would have acted accordingly, potentially refraining from constitutionally protected speech as a result.
Unless SMSU students were given newer, hard copies of the conduct code—which the reporter admitted they were not—the judicial affairs website was the only place for students to read the conduct code. So the fact that the university claims to have had some newer, unpublished version of the code isn’t worth the paper it wasn’t written on.
It’s also worth noting that, despite all of the protestation from the university about the code having been outdated, no one has actually come forward with a version of the document that was updated between June 12, 2012 and November 20, 2015, which would support the university’s argument that FIRE’s intervention had nothing to do with the update.
SMSU’s paper states that it is “continuing to investigate this story,” but it is unclear what’s left to investigate. FIRE criticized an SMSU policy restricting students’ right to free speech, SMSU did the right thing and removed the policy from its code of conduct, and SMSU students have greater free speech rights as a result.
That sounds to me like a story with a happy ending.