By Johnny Kampis | Missouri Watchdog
COLUMBIA – The University of Missouri has multiple ties to founding father Thomas Jefferson, but the school recently was targeted in a study on schools that suppress free speech.
The third U.S. president, whose original grave marker resides on the MU quadrangle, would probably be disappointed to hear Mizzou is one of several public universities in the Show Me State criticized by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for policies that infringe on First Amendment freedoms.
That Philadelphia-based educational organization dinged MU for a vague sexual harassment policy that says “lesser levels of sexually harassing behaviors may be inconsistent with MU’s commitment to a safe and inclusive work and learning environment.”
“Constitutionally speaking, they can’t punish lesser levels of harassment that don’t reach the legal level of harassment,” said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research for FIRE.
MU spokesman Christian Basi told Missouri Watchdog the university takes both free speech and sexual harassment seriously, calling safety the institution’s “number one priority.”
“There’s always going to be a fine line or a gray area,” he said. “Our policy attempts to make sure we have a welcoming work environment for our employees, as well as a safe learning environment for our students.”
Basi said it’s a difficult balance to protect those on campus from unwanted harassment while also allowing Constitutionally-protected speech.
“It’s a fair concern, and it’s something we’re going to continue looking at on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Mizzou was among five of six Missouri public universities to get a “red light” rating from FIRE. This means that each has at least one campus policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
The University of Missouri-St. Louis, for example, has a policy that requires organizations to contact the Student Affairs Office at least six weeks before holding a rally or demonstration.
“There needs to be some opportunity for spontaneous expression,” Harris told Watchdog. “Imagine after 9/11 if students had to wait six weeks to express their opinions.”
But Bob Samples, UMSL’s associate vice chancellor for communication, said that’s not how the university operates.
“We don’t make them wait six weeks,” he said. “We usually ask them to wait 48 hours, and we require the request in writing.”
Samples said a group of students were allowed to hold a rally about the conflict in the Middle East last spring immediately after asking to do so. He noted that UMSL also offers several free speech zones in several high-traffic areas of campus where people can protest.
Samples said he wasn’t aware of the policy cited in the FIRE study, but after Watchdog pointed it out Sample said the university plans to edit what’s in the student handbook.
“We agree this seems unreasonable and are in the process of amending our policy to include a 48-hour notice provision,” he said.
Overall, 65 percent of 392 universities surveyed received red lights. In addition to the ratings given to Missouri’s public colleges, the private Washington University in St. Louis got a red mark.
An eighth school, the private St. Louis University, was not rated. Harris said such schools are not given a rating because they hold a clear and consistent set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech.
Private schools that advertise themselves as a place where free speech is protected do receive ratings, and get poor marks when they don’t honor the First Amendment promises made to students, she said.
As well, Missouri State University’s policy on harassment and disorderly conduct in its residence halls gives a blanket statement
“It can’t be prohibited simply because it’s offensive,” Harris said.
University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg was the only school in the state to receive a yellow-light rating. This means the institution maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress or restrict only narrow categories of speech.
One hundred percent of schools in Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi and Wisconsin received red-light ratings, but Harris noted reforms are in process at Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
“What we often see is if one university in a state changes its policies other universities follow suit,” she said.