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Campus Free Speech Protection Act: A look at the new law in effect

Photo by Sarah Grace Taylor / Sidelines Archive 

As the new year rolled in, so did new free speech protections for students and faculty on campuses across Tennessee. On May 9, 2017, Gov. Bill Haslam signed the Campus Free Speech Protection Act, a piece of legislation meant to ensure that free speech would be upheld and protected on public college campuses, into law. On Jan. 1, 2018, the Campus Free Speech Protection Act officially went into effect, changing the way that schools handle issues such as “free speech zones” and student-on-student harassment. Here is a look at some of the most impactful changes for students and faculty.

Of the issues addressed within the act, free speech zones have been one of the most controversial. The Free Speech Protection Act calls for the complete abolishment of all free speech zones on Tennessee campuses. Critics of free speech zones have seen the select areas that students were to voice protests and other concerns as too confining and restrictive on the first amendment rights of students. In the new law, free speech zones are described as a means to “restrict students’ free speech to only particular areas of the campus.”

Students at MTSU have seen their own share of controversy regarding free speech zones. In October of 2016, the student group, Talented Tenth Student Action Coalition, was asked to stop protesting near the entrance of the library due to the area not being a free speech zone. The student demonstrators were asked to leave by the dean of the library, who stated, “(This area is) not a free zone. You have to ask for permission to use this space.” The library dean, Bonnie Allen, later reached out to Sidelines regarding the incident and said, “I explained that campuses frequently have zones designated for demonstrations, speeches, etc without prior permission. These are often called ‘free speech zones.’ On this campus, that area is in the quad in front of the new student union.”

MTSU held a free speech panel with student and faculty representatives the day after the protest. During the panel, College of Media and Entertainment Dean Ken Paulson stated, “If free speech zones exist on campus, I suggest you ignore them.”

Other organization representatives and officials have also shown strong support for the removal of free speech zones.

“It’s important to eliminate free speech zones on campus because students should be able to engage their classmates wherever they want in the areas on campus without institutions prohibiting them or punishing them,” said Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of FIRE. “We’ve seen it over and over where students are quarantined to far-away areas so that their target audiences can’t hear their messages.”

FIRE is an organization dedicated to protecting the individual rights of students on campuses by empowering campus activists and informing the public on the state of student rights. FIRE also ranks universities based off of how well the freedom of speech of students is protected on various campuses. MTSU received a “redlight” rating from FIRE due to the fact that the school has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” according to FIRE’s website. FIRE provided MTSU with the redlight rating due to the way that MTSU defines sexual harassment within its policies. FIRE released a “Misunderstanding Harassment” guide for the public to better understand the reason that many universities, such as MTSU, come close to stifling free speech rights through harassment policies. In the guide, it is said that a common issue that universities have is providing a “laundry list” of examples of harassment. MTSU, within their sexual harassment policies and guidelines, provides a list such as this. The list includes examples that could become harassment if they rose to a level of severity but could be, otherwise, protected speech.

The issue of “misunderstood harassment” is also addressed within the new act. The Campus Free Speech Protection Act requires Tennessee schools to define “peer-on-peer harassment” in a way that is consistent with the Supreme Court-provided definition from the Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education case. Within Davis v. Monroe, harassment was defined as “so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”

“Overbroad student harassment codes are the most common form of censorship of students and the most common form of punishment for students using protected speech,” Cohn said. “The Supreme Court recognized that you can’t have an educational environment that is so sanitary that you can’t have conflict between students, but you also can’t let everything fly.”

In regards to the free speech of professors, the new law also states that faculty members will not face “adverse employment action” for their speech unless it is not “reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed and comprises a substantial portion of classroom instruction.”

“We see faculty members who are punished across the country for free speech that gives their schools public relations problems,” Cohn said. “An institution’s concerns about good and bad publicity should never trump the concerns of academic freedom. If you don’t have academic freedom, you never get to challenge the status quo, and you never get to advance. That’s really one of the main functions of an institution of higher education: to challenge the current way of thinking.”

Cohn also stated that he believes, with the new law in place, professors won’t be on such a “tight leash” in regards to what they can and cannot discuss in the classroom.

Another provision of the law is the requiring of schools to adopt policies that are consistent with the University of Chicago’s Free Speech Policy Statement. The Chicago policy makes it clear that campuses must provide “all members of the university community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn” and states that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive.”

In line with the Chicago policy, the new law states that it is not the role of the university to disinvite a speaker that has been invited by a student, student organization or faculty member due to the anticipated offensiveness of the guest’s speech. It also specifics that concerns of civility or mutual respect should never be used as a justification for the closing off of discussions of ideas and free speech, no matter how offensive the speech is to certain parties.

During multiple MTSU SGA meetings last semester, Sen. Chance Cansler introduced and defended a bill that would urge MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee and the MTSU Board of Trustees to adopt the University of Chicago’s policy on free speech. Many SGA senators, however, questioned the relevance of the bill, and it did not receive the necessary votes to pass.

“We are in college,” Cansler said in defense of his bill during an SGA meeting. “(We are in) a place of knowledge (and) a place to encounter new, strange and fascinating ideas … That is why I stand before you to advocate for free speech.”

Despite stating that there are still improvements to be made, Cohn said that the new law has addressed a wide range of concerns that have previously been ignored.

“I think that the act tackles a lot of things that should benefit students and faculty, alike,” Cohn said. “It is the strongest protections for free speech on a college campus provided by any state legislator, anywhere in the country … Free speech is vital to the educational success of any institution and a student’s development.”

To view the full Campus Free Speech Protection Act, visit here.

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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