Missouri State nixes free speech restrictions

Missouri State University has revised a policy that limited where outside groups could hold events on campus, and will now consider all outdoor areas legitimate forums for free speech.

The policy change was formally approved Wednesday afternoon during a meeting of the MSU Board of Governors’ executive committee, and has been in the works since at least July, when the school’s existing policy came into conflict with a newly-passed state law.

Prior to Wednesday, MSU’s “Expressive Activity Policy” explicitly differentiated between the free speech of internal and external (non-affiliated) groups, confining the latter to a few pre-approved areas of campus, sometimes referred to facetiously as “free speech zones.”

The policy stated that all members of the MSU community “are encouraged to exercise the right of assembly, free speech, and expression throughout the campus, when doing so does not disrupt the academic mission or daily University functions,” but also stipulated that individuals and groups that are not affiliated with the university could only conduct expressive activities either on city sidewalks near campus or at one of three designated “ public forums.”

In July, however, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed the Campus Free Expression Act (CAFE Act) into law, invalidating the school’s two-tiered approach to free expression and forcing it to extend free speech protections to those outside the MSU community.

The new law designates all outdoor areas of campuses of public institutions of higher learning as “traditional public forums,” meaning expression can only be restricted “in service of a significant institutional interest [and] only when such restrictions employ clear, published, content- and viewpoint-neutral criteria, and provide for ample alternative means of expression.”

The designation applies not only to students and faculty, but also to “any person who wishes to engage in noncommercial expressive activity,” provided the person’s conduct “is not unlawful and does not materially disrupt the functioning of the institution.”

To bring its policy into compliance with the law, MSU eliminated all references to external groups and individuals, and now extends the same speech protections to all individuals that it once confined to members of the MSU community.

In addition, the new policy does away with all requirements confining expressive activity to the three public forums, describing them instead as being the “most appropriate” locations on campus for forums, rallies, demonstrations, and other similar activities.

According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which assisted legislators in drafting the CAFE Act, roughly one in six American public colleges have policies restricting expression to designated “free speech zones,” and Missouri is only the second state (along with Virginia) to pass a law prohibiting the practice.

“Missouri is in many respects leading the way in this now,” FIRE legislative and policy director Joe Cohn told Campus Reform. “It’s a little too early to say how each of the institutions will respond to the legal obligation, but if they all act in good faith, then FIRE will be delighted about that.”

Since the CAFE Act was passed, FIRE has maintained a standing offer to assist schools with their efforts to comply with the law, though Cohn claimed that, “we didn’t work directly with MSU on their revisions.”

Nonetheless, he said, “We think it’s good to see MSU taking their obligations under the CAFE Act seriously. I haven’t had a chance to review the policies, but from what I have read it seems like they’re on the right track.”

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