Students petition Clemson to eliminate speech restrictions

Several conservative student groups at Clemson University are banding together to demand that the school revise speech policies that they say violate the First Amendment.

Leaders of the Clemson chapters of Young Americans for Liberty, Young Americans for Freedom, and Turning Point USA all helped to organize a kickoff event for the “WeRoar” movement Monday, during which they handed out flyers to raise awareness of the school’s speech restrictions and promoted an upcoming lecture on free speech by Clemson graduate and former South Carolina Republican Party Chairman Chad Connelly.

Over the course of about three hours Monday, the students also collected nearly 100 signatures for a petition calling on Clemson to eliminate several unconstitutional policies, which they eventually plan to deliver to administrators.

Kyle Brady, president of the school’s TPUSA chapter, told Campus Reform that he was inspired to begin organizing the coalition upon learning that Clemson has a “red light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), indicating that it has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

In Clemson’s case, the rating is based on a vaguely-worded anti-harassment policy that prohibits “unwelcome” verbal conduct of a sexual nature without any standard for determining the reasonableness of the complaint, though the school also has numerous “yellow light” policies that FIRE claims “could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”

“The part of the policy that goes after things like physical contact or unwelcome sexual advances is perfectly fine, but part of the definition includes ‘verbal conduct of a sexual nature,’ which is both vague and broad,” explained Azhar Majeed, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program. “One could think of all kinds of protected activity that could fall under that category. Say you’re in an English class that discusses a book with sexual themes—that’s clearly legitimate discussion, but it could fall under this definition.”

Mitchell Gunter, a student senator who recently had to defend his own freedom of speech against efforts to remove a campaign poster that some students and faculty considered offensive, told Campus Reform that he had already been working independently to overturn Clemson’s speech restrictions, but decided to sign on to the WeRoar effort after hearing about it from FIRE when he contacted the organization for guidance.

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“At the beginning of this Semester, I decided to try to reform Clemson's Bias Incident Response Protocol (BIRP) as a starting point to reforming all of Clemson's erroneous policies,” he said, referring to one of the policies that have earned a “yellow light” rating from FIRE. Despite following up several times, Gunter claimed that he only received one vaguely-worded response saying the university would investigate his complaint, adding that “ultimately it became clear that my efforts were not sufficient going at it alone.”

The other students had reached the same conclusion, and with YAL chapter president Clayton Warnke taking the lead, they organized the WeRoar coalition in hopes of mobilizing enough student opinion to force the university to respond.

“We’re going to try to put some letters in the Clemson newspapers, we’re trying to get people involved through flyers and a social media campaign, and we’re also going to have a free speech ball event,” Brady told Campus Reform. “We were trying to do it through student government because we have a connection there,” he added, but “unfortunately, Gunter proposed a free speech resolution Monday night and the Senate voted it down.”

Gunter clarified that the Senate had actually voted against expediting the resolution, and did not necessarily object to its content. He plans to re-introduce the measure in April when the Senate's next session convenes.

Despite that setback, the group remains optimistic that it will continue to attract support from the general student population, a prognosis that Majeed said would be aided by the innocuous nature of the cause.

“It looks like they have a broad coalition of student groups from across the ideological spectrum, and as we remind students all the time, free speech is a non-partisan issue,” he explained. “Certainly we’re supportive of the effort, and hope it is successful.”

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