The violent protests in Charlottesville, Virginia and at UC Berkley in August sparked national debate over how policy makers should define “free speech” in public places.
To address these concerns, members of EKU’s Board of Regents will meet on Wednesday, November 15, at Model Laboratory School to draft the first interim set of university policies on free speech since the university’s speech codes were abolished in 2013.
Richard Day, faculty representative for the board of regents, said he initiated the policy to solidify the university’s stances on controversial speech from students and guest demonstrators. With a solidified set of policies, the university could uphold First Amendment rights while avoiding legal pitfalls and improving public safety, Day said.
Day explained on Monday that the move is about “posturing” EKU’s approaches to controversial speech on campus. He described the policy as not an attempt to create restrictions on free speech, but to solidify free speech practices already in place. Developing such policies also poses the challenge of upholding an individual’s right to speak while being careful not to endorse their beliefs.
“If we have a professor who invites somebody to campus and they give a controversial speech, that doesn’t necessarily represent what the university believes, and we need to be prepared to say so,” Day said. “We don’t want to legislate what the content is. Our job is to try to uphold the First Amendment. This is a place where controversial and different kinds of ideas can be expressed, so we just need a policy that lines that out.”
The policy could also help EKU maintain its status as a university that protects First Amendment rights by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Day said. The university became one of only 17 schools nationwide to obtain “green light” status in February 2013, FIRE’s highest rating for free speech after administration abandoned the policy of speech codes and free speech zones – areas of campus that were designated for protests and other expressions of free speech.
“What that assumes is that it’s okay to say something controversial here, but no place else on campus,” Day said of the speech zones. “The First Amendment actually operates in reverse. We can have free speech everywhere, except that there needs to be certain considerations for public safety and safety of our students with regard to what the courts call ‘time, place, and manner’ restrictions. You can’t interrupt somebody’s class with a protest – that kind of a thing.”
EKU spent the next four years with no official speech policy in place – only a police matrix and forms for guest speakers to fill out if they wanted to demonstrate on campus, Day said.
The idea came to Day at the Governor’s Conference on Postsecondary Trusteeship on September 12 and 13 – roughly a month after the events of Charlottesville. After a presentation about free speech in higher education from attorney William Thro, Day pitched the idea of a free speech policy to university council Dana Fohl, who agreed to the idea.
Developing the policy will come in two steps. First, Day, Fohl and other members of a committee will craft the interim policy, with help from department of government chair Lynnette Noblitt. Once a set of policies is established, the committee will immediately form a drafting team to put in place permanent policy and fully vet it to university stakeholders.
However, not every faculty member has been on board with the idea. Professor of journalism Ginny Whitehouse expressed her concern towards drafting policies aimed at regulating speech practices.
“The university needs to make sure students and the community are kept safe and that safety can be addressed best through safety regulations, not speech regulations,” Whitehouse said. “EKU has been recognized by FIRE as a place where free speech thrives.”
Another one of Whitehouse’s concerns is the board’s lack of transparency in drafting the new policy. Rather than communicating proposed policies to the public in advance, the board will make decisions privately, among appointed members.
“If we don’t know what the policy is at this time, how can we know if it’s ok or not ok?” Whitehouse said. “If the university is going to consider a policy to regulate protests and demonstrations, that discussion needs to take place in public, even if it’s only an interim policy.”
Public spaces can be broken down into two categories in the case of free speech, Whitehouse said. The first is a traditional or designated forum – places like the Ravine or Powell Corner where groups or individuals can assemble for demonstrative expression. The second is limited purpose forums, or places like classrooms or hallways where the public is invited, but aren’t necessarily designated for expression.
Because classrooms and hallways aren’t designated for the purpose of demonstration, some activities can be restricted in these places based on the time and manner of speech, Whitehouse said. New policies on free speech would have to abide by these guidelines to be constitutional.
Samantha Harris, FIRE vice president of policy research, said she trusts they will. She worked with former EKU chief public relations officer Marc Whitt to eliminate speech codes in 2013 and create less restrictions on free assembly.
“FIRE trusts that any new policies regarding free speech will reflect the university’s well-established commitment to the free speech rights of its students and faculty, and looks forward to seeing the new policy,” Harris said in a statement.
Others are unsure that the policy is even necessary.
“We believe in College Democrats that there are already important laws in place to prevent violent and disruptive protests, so instigating campus-wide regulations of protesting would be kind of unnecessary,” said Ivan Cornelius, president of College Democrats.
“There is a lot of concern right now that someone is going to come in with tiki torches,” Whitehouse said. “In reality, we need to prepare for not the last threat, but for the next demonstration, whatever that may be.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article stated the following innacuracies: Board of Regents will meet on November 15, not on November 12; Richard Day’s title was incorrectly listed as “chair of faculty senate”; Lynnette Noblitt’s title was incorrectly listed as “faculty senator”; Dana Fohl’s name was incorrectly spelled as “Dohl”; Dana Fohl’s title was incorrectly listed as “university council member”; the title “council members” was replaced by “members of a committee” as there is no official “council” that exists to craft the policy.