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 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][6].

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, by phone at 832-7187, on Twitter @saramarieshep or via Facebook at