Spurred by events of past year, KU’s University Senate forms free speech committee

Ad hoc group charged with proposing policy to ‘guarantee’ freedom of speech and expression at KU

photo by: Richard Gwin

Kansas University professor and University Senate President Mike Williams moderates an information session about guns on campus Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in KU's Budig Hall.

Over the past year, Kansas University faculty, students and staff have had countless conversations about sensitive and controversial things; racial discrimination and guns on campus top the list.

Hot debates have erupted over whether certain utterances and opinions are protected speech.

“The whole notion of how we interact with each other on this campus seemed at times challenged, at times strained,” said outgoing University Senate President Mike Williams, associate professor of journalism. “We are often challenged in how we are allowed to express ourselves freely.”

On Tuesday Williams suggested creating an ad hoc committee to research and, if deemed necessary, propose a freedom of speech and expression policy for KU. The University Senate Executive Committee unanimously approved the committee, which will form this summer and work throughout the upcoming academic year.

Calling the free exchange of ideas the “bedrock upon which academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge are based,” Williams’ proposal said such a policy should guarantee campus is a safe environment for freedom of speech by all.

“As KU works to improve its climate of equity and inclusion, the university must commit to protecting our right to free speech, regardless of how offensive, uncivil or disagreeable such communication might be to members of our community,” the proposal says. “It must also find effective ways to educate about the responsibilities that come with this right.”

photo by: Richard Gwin

Kansas University professor and University Senate President Mike Williams moderates an information session about guns on campus Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015, in KU's Budig Hall.

Especially with concealed carry coming to campus in 2017, KU must establish a climate for constructive discourse, to “develop a tolerance for disagreement while avoiding violent confrontation,” according to the proposal.

A free speech policy also should help assure that faculty and employee work is free from unacceptable pressure and influence, from inside or outside the university, the proposal said.

Many existing KU policies refer to the concepts of academic freedom and freedom of speech, but there’s no policy unequivocally stating KU’s support of those concepts, Williams and University Senate Executive Committee members said.

“The rights of freedom of speech are not explicitly spelled out in a precise document,” said outgoing committee member Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, professor of aerospace engineering and president of the KU chapter of American Association of University Professors. “It would be a good thing for us as a community to say, ‘Yeah, this is important to us.'”

The 12-member University Senate committee will have representatives from faculty, staff, students and administration, and the approved proposal states that each membership group should include at least one person from a traditionally underrepresented population at KU.

A few examples of free speech-related issues this year at KU:

• A KU assistant professor who used the N-word during a class discussion on race was accused of racial harassment and discrimination and put on leave while the university investigated. The university ultimately determined she had not violated policy.

• This spring some students protested campus sidewalk chalk writing in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

• In December a student with an opposing opinion approached a professor and cursed in his face during an information session about campus concealed carry.

• At KU’s November town hall forum on race, respect and free speech, dozens of students shared stories about racially or sexually tinged comments they found offensive or hurtful.

• In August KU settled a lawsuit involving a student group concerned about the influence of Koch Industries on a School of Business lecturer’s teachings, a case in which both sides made arguments hinging on academic freedom.

• KU and other state schools continue operating under a social media policy established by the Kansas Board of Regents after a KU associate professor of journalism was put on leave for an anti-NRA tweet in 2013.

“The idea of respect and honoring the words and thoughts of others on this campus is of critical importance,” Williams said. “We should, as a university, respect each other’s ability to say what they want to say.”

Last month Williams floated the idea of creating a University Senate standing committee on diversity, because the provost-created Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Group was to be a one-year-only task force and he questioned its independence from university administration. Williams was a member of that group.

However, Williams said he is abandoning that idea.

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Advisory Group’s final report, released publicly April 29, includes a recommendation that it transform into an “ongoing body, independent from, but directly advising the chancellor and provost.”