Staff Editorial: Proposed Speech Policy Goes Too Far

They’re annoying. They yell at you. They pass out the same green bible to you each and every time. They tell you that you are sinful and will burn in hell forever. Sometimes they do not even make sense and it seems like more of a sideshow than a person with a valid viewpoint.

Those people who wander onto campus to share and express their ideas can cause a lot of frustration and comedy for students. But they do have something to say and Northern Kentucky University and other colleges and universities throughout the country have had a long-standing tradition of welcoming them into the exchange of ideas, invited or not. We honor their constitutional right to free speech and to express their ideas.

NKU now wants to change that tradition. They want to place significant limitations on free speech in an effort that has little to do with the claimed concerns about security, disruption of the academic atmosphere or misrepresenting campus to prospective students.

Instead, it is a purposeful action designed to push those speakers not enjoyed by the majority of campus into places where they can be avoided and to create bureaucratic steps to make it more difficult to be on campus in the first place.

We at The Northerner stand up against these restrictions on free speech. We do not endorse this proposed change to university policy — neither should you.

If passed, the changed policy would continue to hold all the window-dressing of respecting diversity of opinions and allowing novel and unpopular views to be expressed. It is, however, nothing more than decoration.

Its enforceable provisions send an opposite message: the university is basically stuck with dealing with speakers having novel or unpopular opinions, but they are going to shove those speakers in some convenient corner.

The draft changes require the Dean of Students to designate certain areas of campus as appropriate zones for sharing ideas, giving the dean the ability to pick and choose where that designated area is in every individual instance.

Apparently, NKU does not want to be perceived as one of those universities with one designated free speech zone. Instead, it has decided to open itself up to a different kind of controversy by selectively choosing where certain speakers with certain messages can go on certain occasions. That may pass the public relations test with a check plus, but it fails the fairness test in the real world.

The current Dean of Students, Jeffrey Waple, has given an assurance that creating one designated free speech zone is not part of the plan, nor is picking and choosing where certain groups may go based on the content of their speech. However, that appears to be his personal philosophy and is not written or dictated anywhere within the proposed changes to the actual policy.

There is nothing in the proposed policy to keep him from changing his personal viewpoint, or in a university known for its revolving door of staff in student affairs, from the whims of a new dean that could have a different perspective. There are absolutely no criteria or factors that dictate what can contribute to the dean’s decision as to where these speakers may share their opinions.

Similarly, the Dean of Students would be required to make decisions as to whether a speaker could come to campus at all. At his or her sole discretion, a group of speakers could be denied access to the university because “the request cannot be approved as submitted.”

The criteria for what can be denied are also vague, and it is not clear from the proposal that it is limited only to the time, place and manner restrictions listed within specific formal policies of the university. This leaves room for the interpretation that informal, unwritten policies are also enforceable and an acceptable reason to deny access to campus. Will NKU do this? They say no, but the proposed policy would allow it.

Apparently, in both instances, the policy requires students and the public to trust the Dean of Students to make the appropriate decision. Nothing personal, but he does not have our trust.

“Trust us” is not an appropriate policy for a public university, part of the state government, to espouse. Government is based on checks and balances for a reason — because it cannot be fully trusted. There are ample opportunities for misuse of power under the proposed policy. Any policy aimed at limiting free speech access on campus must include carefully crafted criteria as to what will be allowed and what will not for the fairness of those groups and speakers seeking to utilize this public forum.

However, the university has avoided crafting any specifics within the policy. Drafting specifics is a difficult task because it tends to focus on the content of speech. State government limiting speech based on content could be unconstitutional. Even if they pass constitutional muster, they severely limit public access for free speech on campus areas where free speech can occur. This would open it up to a public relations nightmare.

We offer a solution to you: do not change the current policy. Instead, continue to welcome outside speakers with their varying perspectives to speak on campus as long as their conduct is lawful. And, quit being embarrassed that you are doing so.

One of the main rationales offered by the university for the creation of this policy is that the Office of Admissions often must reroute certain campus tours of prospective students around guest speakers. There is absolutely no reason for the Office of Admissions to do this. NKU should be proud that we are public forum where ideas can be expressed openly. And, if sadly the Office of Admissions is not proud of that fact, they should not be dishonest in portraying the campus as a place where students will not run into these types of speakers.

It seems unlikely, too, that the Office of Admissions is rerouting campus tours around all guest speakers. Instead, they are likely making a decision whether or not to allow certain ideas to be heard by guests on campus based on the content of the speech. This is exactly what NKU is trying to avoid.

Universities are the marketplace of ideas, but we cannot stock the shelves only with those things that everyone likes. We need new tastes and flavors and they should not be hidden in a back corner that no one visits.

Even when someone is talking “crazy,” presenting an erroneous or irrational perspective, there is something to be gained from hearing them.

By allowing others to voice their opinions and views to the public, not only is the speaker heard, but students are, too.

Almost every time you see the angry bible thumpers or crazy conspiracy theorists, something inside of you has something to say. That’s great. We need more communication through different modes of expressing ourselves. Because those who come to preach are ready for argument and discussion, we can get the best of what we may lack. We are here to learn, to think and to find our place in this world. By utilizing these opportunities, we can gain knowledge and exercise our freedom of speech.

These speakers are great examples for college students. Their claims and methods show NKU students how to properly form an argument or opinion, and express it effectively. Most students do not take them seriously and see them as more of a nuisance and for that reason they help us realize why we are in college. These “speakers” serve as a reminder of our first amendment, and what makes an intelligent opinion versus an annoyance.

In any case, the proposed policy is likely ineffective as written. The loopholes it creates defeat its purpose. A student organization that values free speech, such as a campus newspaper, could simply sponsor those unpopular speakers and free them from the restrictive policy.

If NKU were to fix the loophole and adopt a policy further restricting the speakers sponsored by campus organizations it would likely be more controversial and create new headaches for students. It, like this proposal, is not advised.

Click here to read the current policy on off campus speakers

Click here to read the proposed policy on off campus speakers