Missouri State University earned the lowest rating on freedom of speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform at FIRE, said attorneys at FIRE rate each university based on the policies they have. Beltz said they make sure policies in the higher education do not violate the rights each individual has in the First Amendment.
The rights in the First Amendment are freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances.
“Missouri State University maintains several policies that, on their face, unreasonably restrict constitutionally protected expression,” Beltz said.
Each university is given a different color depending on the policies it reinforces. A green light is given for universities that don’t violate freedom of speech, a yellow light is for universities that put some vague limitation on freedom of speech and a red light is for universities that have a clear restriction on freedom of speech, according to FIRE’s website.
FIRE gave Missouri State a red light based on two of their policies: one in Title IX, and one that was in the old version of the guide to residence hall living.
Beltz said MSU’s Title IX policy on sexual misconduct earns a red light because the definition of sexual harassment in it gets close to U.S. Supreme Court's standard for peer harassment in campus, and it also gives examples that are too broad.
Beltz said the policy mentions examples like "insulting," "teasing," or "mocking,” and these examples are protected by the Constitution when standing alone.
“The policy should be revised to explain that those examples are only punishable when they meet the policy's definition of sexual harassment,” Beltz said. “Otherwise, students will read the policy, assume things like one-time insults are punishable as harassment, and self-censor accordingly.”
Ashley Reece, a Title IX investigator, said they have not received any complaints about the substance of Title IX policy, and they disagree with FIRE’s low evaluation to MSU.
“We view their assessment as an opportunity to review the policy and provide clarifications to it,” Reece said. “That review process is underway.”
The other policy that earned a red light was a harassment definition in the old version of the guide to residence hall living.
Beltz said the definition earned a red light because it banned all communications “that are intended to intimidate or humiliate any person.” Beltz said this policy need to be changed to show students that these communications are banned only when they are used as a sexual conduct.
Ryan DeBoef, chief of staff and assistant to the president for governmental relations, said that this policy is no longer a current university policy.
“It’s my understanding that the university updated and changed the language cited below several years ago,” DeBoef said.
Beltz said FIRE has helped many universities on revising their policies to make sure students’ basic rights are protected, and policies are not violating the constitution.
“We would be pleased to work with the students, faculty members, and administration of Missouri State University to help revise these speech codes,” Beltz said.