Keene State College has received a “red light rating” for one of its policies by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE is an organization whose mission is to “defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” The FIRE organization reviews policies in public and private schools and gives them a rating based on violations against the First Amendment: green light, yellow light or red light.
According to FIRE, KSC received a red light for it’s discrimination and discriminatory harassment policy and a yellow light for it’s event planning.
FIRE staff member Shelby Emmett also reported about her testimony before the New Hampshire House of Education Committee on a bill (HB 1561) that protects freedom of expression at New Hampshire public colleges and universities by prohibiting the use of unconstitutional “free speech zones.”
“Students are permitted to engage in free speech activities only on the Student Center Lawn and inside the Young Student Center Atrium – and only when scheduled in advance,” Emmett stated about KSC in her Feb. 4, report.
“Prior restraint on student expression is wrong and presumptively unconstitutional at public institutions like UNH [University of New Hampshire] and KSC. Worse, these policies limit students’ ability to quickly respond to recent events or to speech with which they disagree,” Emmett stated in her article regarding the hearing.
The following ratings are based specifically on speech policies.
A green light policy is granted if a college or university’s policies do not seriously imperil speech, according to Thefire.org. “Receiving a green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression. It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus,” the website stated.
Yellow light ratings are given to policies that “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.
An example of a yellow light policy would be “posters containing references to alcohol or drugs” because it “unambiguously restricts speech on the basis of content and viewpoint, but its scope is very limited,” according to FIRE.
A “red light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A “clear” restriction is one that “unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression. In other words, the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied,” FIRE stated.
Azhar Majeed has been a staff member at FIRE since 2007. He said FIRE looks through as many public schools policies as possible to “protect the First Amendment Rights of students.”
“These are basic policies that regulate student conduct and speech, to see restricted codes is troubling…it worries us,” Majeed said. He said that students or professors can “submit a case” to FIRE for further investigation into a policy. “We can’t promise we can help, but we can look at it,” Majeed said.
Special Assistant to the President Human Resources Carol Corcoran said KSC was aware of the ratings they had received from FIRE in September. She said she believes it is important “for any person to be aware of what their rights are.”
As for the red light rated discrimination and discriminatory harassment policy, Corcoran said administration has been “trying to see what is in [the policy] that is problematic.”
“I think there is probably some language that they feel we’re being too explicit about,” she said.
KSC junior Nicole Mowat learned about this red light rating in her Information Policy class while researching freedom of speech and expression.
Mowat said she was unaware of the red and yellow light ratings that Keene State holds. “It is a little concerning that our school does not consider this issue a bigger deal,” Mowat said, “Keene State prohibits spontaneous assembling which basically prohibits [students] expression through protesting if there are issues students disagree with.”
Mowat said she believes this policy “limits student voice on campus and sensors the flow of information on campus.” Mowat said, “This shows that [KSC] has a lack of commitment to students’ expressive rights.”
Corcoran said it’s important “not to be actively soliciting people” or making them uncomfortable. “I think that if within the context of appropriateness of people expressing themselves is not frowned upon but as long as it’s done in a way that doesn’t infringe upon other peoples’ rights,” she said.
Corcoran said it is important that one student’s ability of free speech isn’t going to infringe upon another’s ability to have a safe environment.
KSC is the only school in N.H. that has received a red light speech code category rating compared to Dartmouth College and University of New Hampshire, which received a yellow light, and Plymouth State, which received a green light.
“KSC only has one policy that has a red light rating, so [administration] really just needs to change this one speech code to get rid of their red light rating,” Majeed said.
Title IX Discrimination and Harassment Coordinator Jeffrey Maher was not aware of when KSC received the red light rating. “I don’t know when that policy was created, I don’t know how long it’s been in existence,” Maher said about KSC’s discrimination and discriminatory harassment policy.
As for the yellow light rating for event planning, Maher said he knows speech “can be restricted based upon reasonable time place and manner restrictions.”
“The legal standard is the restrictions have to be reasonable, have to relate to time, place and manner and they have to be content and viewpoint neutral,” he said. He continued, “I think what we’re striving for with these policies is to try to create a culture of inclusion and success for our students so that an individual or group isn’t targeted with hateful speech, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.”
Although FIRE’s website claims the policy ratings were last updated on Sept. 13, 2015, Corcoran said she was unaware of which policies were “problematic.”
“What wasn’t clear to me until very recently is what exactly fire was objecting to,” she said.
Corcoran said she doesn’t believe that these policies were made post Pumpkinfest. She said that FIRE has reached out to KSC in the past during another Presidency.
“In many ways, I think our policies have been to help make a safe environment for everyone and yet you don’t want to be infringing upon people’s constitutional rights,” she said. Corcoran said she and other administration hope to have a response to these policy allegations before the term is over.
MacKenzie Clarke can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org