Higher education is a wonderful opportunity to immerse yourself in a wide variety of viewpoints and ideas, including some that may be different than your own. As a public institution that accepts federal funding, Missouri State University is subject to first amendment burdens including those of free speech and expression. It is important to note that “speech” can be more than just words, but any form of verbal or nonverbal communication. (Cohen v California, 1971). Communication includes non-verbal communication (such as clothing or sit-ins) while also including more traditional forms of speech (chants, speeches, social media, signage, or chalking). Missouri State University is only able to limit speech based on time, place, and manner restrictions (basically the when, where, and how), including limiting actions that interfere with the free flow of traffic or pedestrians, directly incite violence or destroy university property.
The Expressive Activity Policy is the primary governance of on-campus speakers and demonstrations. The policy is in place to “provide a community environment in which open discussion can occur without disrupting the academic mission or daily university functions, subject to constitutional time, place, and manner limitations and without unconstitutionally interfering with the rights of others.” As previously noted, these restrictions are in place to prevent campus violence, operational disturbances, or damage to university policy.
Having free speech can result in being exposed to ideas or positions that are hard to hear and/ or upsetting. However, free speech helps colleges and universities continue to act as a marketplace of ideas. Higher Education is a space where students get to develop their own viewpoints and belief systems by hearing a variety of positions. Without freedom of speech and expression, this opportunity to diversify viewpoints could no longer exist. Losing free speech hinders the development of cultural competence and ethical leadership.
There are actions you can take if you are exposed to ideas you disagree with or upset you. An option is to remove yourself from the situation. Choosing to not respond or engage with the idea is an example of free speech itself and might be the best option for you. Another option is choosing to engage in difficult conversations. One way you can do this is by asking someone of a different viewpoint why they believe what they do. Ask questions to listen and not respond or defend your side. You may not agree with the positions being expressed, and that is okay! Engaging with opposing viewpoints can help strengthen your own position or give you a new way to see an issue. One of the beauties of free speech is that it fosters a space for multiple sides of a viewpoint to be discussed. Choosing to engage allows you the opportunity for productive conversation or debate. Additionally, it allows the opportunity for speakers to be brought in representing the viewpoint you want represented.
You may still be wondering how these ideas apply in a real-world situation. Check out the situation below, and how the principles discussed show themselves.
As president of the Sour Patch Kids Club, you want to spread your message that Sour Patch Kids are the best. You and the members of your club create signs and shirts that state “Sour Patch Kids are the best!”, and head to the north mall at lunchtime to spread your message. You bring in candy enthusiasts who speak to the fact that Sour Patch Kids are the superior candy. However, there is a group on campus who believe Swedish Fish are the best candy and don’t want your organization to be able to speak.
In this situation, the Sour Patch Kids Club has come to an acceptable place (the north mall), as outlined in the Expressive Activity Policy,) to have their demonstration. The organization also is using signs and shirts that state “Sour Patch Kids are the best!” These signs do not encourage any sort of violence and are therefore allowed under the Expressive Activity Policy. The demonstrators would need to ensure that they are not blocking the Bear Line or any of the sidewalks or entrance doors around the north mall. Interfering with the flow of traffic or persons would violate the Expressive Activity Policy and pose a safety concern for the campus. In this case, University Safety may step in and ask those persons to move. University Safety is often present during demonstrations to ensure the safety of the community but will not interfere unless there is a safety concern or a violation of the Expressive Activity Policy.
The students who are fans of Swedish Fish must walk by this event to get to class. Some students choose to walk away because they disagree. Others stay and ask questions and open a dialogue to understand the Sour Patch Kids club position. In response to the Sour Patch Kids club demonstration, the students who only want Swedish Fish decide to host their own event. They hope to get their side of the topic heard as well and have their viewpoint represented. While this is a silly example, the same principles can be applied to any sort of group- religious, political, or any student organization.
Allowing for free speech on campus helps to foster a unique environment for learning and growth in higher education. The Expressive Activity policy ensures the safety and operation of the university and the community, but still affords the opportunity for voices to be heard. If you have questions regarding expressive activity on campus, or the policy itself, contact University Safety or the Office of Student Conduct.