LJWorld.com weblogs Heard on the Hill

National free speech group says KU is among schools with codes that ‘violate’ the First Amendment; University Senate free speech committee continues meeting


The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, has included the University of Kansas on a list (a rather large list) of public colleges and universities it says have speech codes that violate the First Amendment and student and faculty rights to free speech.

KU was among 111 schools informed by FIRE that they had been given a “red light” rating — the organization’s poorest mark — for “clearly and substantially restricting student and faculty speech on campus,” FIRE announced last week.

“Far too many of America’s public colleges and universities still restrict campus expression with blatantly unconstitutional policies,” FIRE Director of Policy Reform Azhar Majeed said in a statement. “Administrators at these schools can no longer claim they are unaware that their policies violate First Amendment rights. FIRE’s message is clear: Failing to revise unconstitutional speech codes can result in a loss in court and personal liability.”

FIRE cites two KU policies it says deserve the “red light” rating. One is a portion of the KU Student Housing handbook that prohibits “harassing behavior or materials regardless of method or medium”; the other is a list of examples of actions that constitute sexual harassment.

I’m not qualified to comment on their constitutionality, but I did independently verify these passages’ existence for you. The housing bit is in KU’s 2016-17 Student Housing Handbook (link here) and the sexual harassment examples are online at sexualharassment.ku.edu and in the Institutional Opportunity and Access Procedure for Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence (links here and here).

FIRE describes itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending liberty, freedom of speech, due process, academic freedom, legal equality, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses.”

• Free speech committee update: The FIRE news release says the group frequently collaborates with higher ed officials to reform speech codes and that it has worked with 62 since the beginning of 2015 to revise at least one speech code at each school. I don’t know if anyone at KU has worked directly with this group, but as I’ve previously reported, the University Senate has created an ad hoc committee to explore whether a separate free speech policy is needed at KU and, if so, to propose one.

The committee is continuing to work on its charge, led by Richard Levy, KU’s J.B. Smith Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law. He recently checked in with the University Senate Executive Committee for some guidance.

Levy told execs in October that there is a perception by some constituencies that the committee was created to “silence” a particular group or groups.

“That is not true,” said Faculty Senate President Pam Keller, a clinical professor in the School of Law. “This is about stating principle so every individual on campus — be it faculty, staff, students, minority view, majority view, whatever view — has a right to free speech.”

With consensus from the University Senate execs, Levy said he would go back and assure the committee that repression is not the goal. He also said such a committee could not be used to restrict anyone's free speech, as one person questioned.

“It’s called the First Amendment. It applies to the University of Kansas," Levy said. "The campus as an agent of the state is bound by the First Amendment. There are certain bedrock norms of the First Amendment that the campus is bound to follow.”

— I’m the Journal-World’s KU and higher ed reporter. See all the newspaper’s KU coverage here. Reach me by email at sshepherd@ljworld.com, by phone at 832-7187, on Twitter @saramarieshep or via Facebook at Facebook.com/SaraShepherdNews.


Nathan Anderson 1 year, 7 months ago

The 1st Amendment only protects students at KU if someone has the resources to challenge restrictive speech codes in a court of law.

Adopt the University of Chicago's free speech policy. Problem solved.


Shawn Boultinghouse 1 year, 7 months ago

It's too bad that some people in this country want to restrict free speech. Michael Browns mother and step-father were allowed to incite a riot and never charged. The Liberals want to restrict speech for those who don't agree with them.

Kendall Simmons 1 year, 7 months ago

And you think that you and your fellow right-wingers don't want...and don't try...to restrict speech and speakers that you don't agree with? Hahahahahahahahahaha.

Joe Masterson 1 year, 7 months ago

Our next President has said he wants to change the first amendment, I don't think he's a liberal.

Clara Westphal 1 year, 7 months ago

The Supreme Court has skewed the meaning of free speech to include such things as burning the American flag. Free speech has too broad a definition.

Shawn, I agree that free speech to some people means only if a person agrees with them.

Kendall Simmons 1 year, 7 months ago

Sorry, but burning the flag most certainly is a form of free speech.

For you, in one sentence, to proclaim that free speech has too broad a definition" and then, in the very next sentence, that "free speech to some people means only if a person agrees with them" has me shaking my head. I mean, your argument appears to be that flag burning shouldn't be protected as a form of free speech because you don't think it should be. Hmmmm.

Richard Aronoff 1 year, 7 months ago

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

Note that there is no "except when" clause.

Bob Smith 1 year, 7 months ago

Disappointed progressives wan to be free from hearing opinions that differ from their own.

Scott Quenette 1 year, 7 months ago

This doesn't even take into account the shoddy treatment of my wife Andrea by the university which prompted several letters and articles from FIRE.

Chris Bohling 1 year, 7 months ago

The student housing manual is tl;dr. Sara, can you point out what page # specifically contains the policies FIRE opposes?

EDIT: Sorry for calling you Chad, Sara!

Sara Shepherd 1 year, 7 months ago

Yep, the harassment passage cited by FIRE is on page 17 of the handbook. — Sara Shepherd, LJW

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