By STEVEN NALLEY
In America, there once was a time when universities restricted where free speech demonstrations could be delivered.
Mississippi State University Dean of Students Thomas Bourgeois said MSU was once one of several universities that created “free speech zones” to contain protests in the ’60s and ’70s. These zones were abolished in the ’90s, Bourgeois said, and for the past 10 years, MSU has been working to make its campus friendly for free speech.
“It’s not just for students ... faculty and staff,” Bourgeois said. “We have a few speakers and other people who want to come to campus and they want to (use) their First Amendment rights, and we of course afford them (those rights) as long as they’re not blocking access to any buildings or trying to incite a riot.”
This week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education awarded MSU its highest honor, a green light rating shared with only 15 other universities nationwide.
A non-profit national civil rights education organization based in Philadelphia, Pa., FIRE brings together leaders, scholars, journalists and intellectuals to protect individual rights at colleges and universities, including freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process and rights of conscience.
Bourgeois said the rating concludes a journey which began when FIRE came to an annual legal issues conference at MSU. While there, he said, FIRE representatives informed MSU staff that MSU was very close to earning the green light rating, with only a few minor issues standing in the way.
“It was really minor stuff, stuff that (was) actually in the works to be updated anyway,” Bourgeois said. “It didn’t fundamentally change at all the way we enforced any of our policies at Mississippi State.”
Samantha Harris, FIRE director of speech code research, said it has three levels of ratings for universities corresponding with traffic — green, yellow and red. Schools with green light ratings don’t maintain any speech codes — or policies on free speech that restrict it to a greater extent than federal law — that seriously threaten speech on campus.
“A red light speech code is one that both clearly and substantially infringes on student speech,” Harris said. “With a yellow light policy, free speech is threatened, but it either comes from a policy that is vague and susceptible to abuse, or that explicitly restricts expression, but only on a narrow scale.”
FIRE has a nationwide network of outside attorneys who have litigated against universities with red light speech codes, but Harris said MSU had no speech codes in place that were egregious enough to draw FIRE’s attention on their own. The policies MSU revised in working with FIRE included an information technology policy, a policy about posting in residence halls, and two policies from its code of conduct.
“It was really a very productive collaboration,” Harris said. “Their intent was not to restrict expression, but some of their policies did do that. So they revised them, and that was it. We hope more schools will follow their lead.”
Bourgeois said FIRE was amicable to work with, and he appreciates them offering MSU the green light opportunity. That said, MSU made the changes primarily to build a better campus, not specifically to comply with FIRE’s standards, he said.
“We didn’t do this to get a green light rating,” Bourgeois said. “We did it because it’s the right thing to do. It’s nice that FIRE recognizes it, but we didn’t make these changes just to get on (the upper end of) a rating scale.”
Enabling faculty, staff, students and others to engage in free exchange of ideas creates a better learning environment for students, Bourgeois said. Not all learning takes place in the classroom, he said, and people on campus need to be free to discuss anything that excites or bothers them.
“We’re preparing students for a global marketplace and being able to work in a diverse environment,” Bourgeois said. “By ‘diverse,’ I don’t just mean race; I mean socioeconomic, political (and) religious (standing), all of the above. To be able to do that, you need to be able to provide an environment where students, faculty and staff can exercise free speech (and) talk about differences in a civil manner.”