Student leaders suggest improvements for UMN free speech policies

Students Representatives to the Board of Regents want a singular resource to learn about University-wide speech protections.

by Bella Dally-Steele

Students may soon have clearer guidelines for how they can exercise speech on campus.

With several high-profile cases nationwide and at the University of Minnesota, the Student Representatives to the Board of Regents want the University to clarify its policies on campus free speech.

“Free speech on college campuses has become a hot-button issue across the country … the issue is already affecting our University,” student representatives to the board Vice Chair Mike Kenyanya said Friday at the regents meeting.

While University President Eric Kaler has stated his commitment to free speech on campus, to make the University’s policies clearer, the student representatives want the University to make a “comprehensive, system-wide policy on student free speech” by fall 2018.

They also want the school to see whether current policies need changes and if students need more free speech resources.

The student representatives also say they want regents to consult free speech statements already made by the Council of Graduate Students and the Faculty Consultative Committee.

They also want a central source of information, like a website, on free speech policies by fall 2018.

At the University, incidents like the 2015 arrest of student protesters in Morrill Hall and the 2016 vandalism of the College Republicans’ “Build the Wall” panel of the Washington Avenue Bridge, among others, led to discussions over the limit of free speech on campus.

At the meeting, Regent Darrin Rosha said the 2018 deadline was too distant. He said six months to a year would likely suffice or the project may lose momentum due to student leader turnover.

But Kenyanya said he wants enough time to ensure a comprehensive policy for all system campuses.

Nicholas Goldsmith, president of COGS, said above all, the University needs a unified policy, and a full consultative process is in order.

The University shouldn’t mimic other colleges’ policies, he said, but instead should create one that reflects the University’s unique history and values.

Dane Thompson, vice president of Professional Student Government, said a revision of current policies would help identify “gaps” caused by a lack of precedent or specific language that otherwise would go unnoticed.

Jane Kirtley, director of the University’s Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law and a journalism and law professor, said the best way to combat free speech is with more speech.

“When we drive speech and expression underground, we only encourage it,” she said.

She said students need to know they are subject to the first amendment but many may not know the University can make time, place and manner restrictions.

Kirtley, Rosha and Thompson said they support the creation of a resource or website to list students’ free speech rights, but said they worried it may be lost among other links on the University’s website.

“[These policies] should be readily accessible, and it is sometimes very difficult to navigate the University’s website,” Kirtley said.