Protecting free speech on college campuses

By Steve Wilson
January 17, 2019

Most of Mississippi’s public universities receive passing grades for their policies on protecting free speech, but that doesn’t mean an issue is far away.

Conservative speakers at campuses nationwide have been either disinvited or have drawn protests designed to shut the event down.

Shelby Emmett, the Director of the Center to Protect Free Speech at the American Legislative Exchange Council, says execution of even a well-written freedom of speech policy can be problematic.

Both of the state’s largest universities — Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi — earned green ratings from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on their speech codes. This means that their policies don’t seriously imperil free speech.

Emmett worked at FIRE before joining ALEC.

“I remember when they contacted and reached out for help with their codes, which is great,” Emmett said. “It’s great to see schools take the initiative, contact organizations to make sure they have their written codes up to par. On paper, it looks like they’re doing it right. But there also are some schools with bad ratings, bad codes, whether they’re free speech zones or very vague or over broad regulations.

“Even the schools with great policies, you want to make sure they’re doing it the right way.”

Emmett says nationwide that vague speech codes at universities that are more concerned with offending an individual rather than protecting freedom of expression were designed with good intentions, but are now being used by politically savvy students to take over and change the culture of the institution.

One of the reasons for the emotional distress components of speech codes was to provide a calm, welcoming environment for veterans returning from wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She said like most things, this was abused.

She also said that administrators who don’t like a particular subject can let their personal opinions get in the way of protecting all speech if the university doesn’t have strong procedures in place to prevent it.

“I feel for the administrators because they’re between a rock and a hard place,” Emmett said. “They’re dealing with a campus population that wants a certain level of comfort and they’re also paying tuition, which they need to be catering first and foremost to their consumer base.

“It’s easy for me to tell them to get over it when I sit here in the luxury of my office and I’m not actually dealing with a 19-year-old who’s offended that Ben Shapiro came to their campus.”

Not all of Mississippi’s institutions of higher learning receive such high marks from FIRE.

FIRE rates the University of Southern Mississippi and Alcorn State University as yellow, which means some of their policies can restrict a more limited amount of free expression or could be used to ban protected expression. Jackson State University received a red rating from FIRE, which means the university has policies in place that can clearly and substantially restrict protected speech.

Emmett, along with Zack Pruitt of Alliance Defending Freedom, were in Jackson this week for Mississippi Center for Public Policy’s Liberty Luncheon on campus free speech.


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