In 2015, Keene State College received a “red light rating” for its discrimination and discriminatory harassment policy and a “yellow light” for its event planning policy.
These ratings were presented by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). 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.
Every year, FIRE sends out a press release to the schools to which they rated. To review what each rating means and how it applies to KSC’s policies, you can refer to The Equinox’s article “Red light: KSC policies receive negative free speech rating” posted on March 10, 2016.
As of September 2016, KSC’s ratings have not changed. FIRE released their ratings on Sept. 7 and KSC still has a red light for its discrimination and discriminatory harassment policy and a yellow light for its event planning policy.
Last March, Director of Policy Reform at FIRE Azhar Majeed responded to KSC’s low ratings. “These are basic policies that regulate student conduct and speech, to see restricted codes is troubling…it worries us,” Majeed said in a March 2016 article in The Equinox.
Although FIRE’s website says the policy ratings were updated Sept. 13 2015, in March of 2016, KSC’s Special Assistant to the President for Human Resources Carol Corcoran said she was unaware of which policies were “problematic.”
Corcoran also said she and the administration hoped to have had a response to the policy allegations before the spring 2016 term was over.
Corcoran was unavailable for comment about the unchanging ratings. KSC’s Director of Strategic Communications and Community Relations Kelly Ricaurte was asked for comments and she directed The Equinox to Title IX Discrimination and Harassment Coordinator Jeffrey Maher.
Last March, Maher was not aware that 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 in March.
In an email response, Maher stated many of Keene State’s policies “are adopted from system policies promulgated through the University System of New Hampshire.”
“I don’t have a historical perspective on how these policies were enacted,” he stated.
“While I’m certainly encouraged that The Equinox has chosen to shine a light on this important issue, I respectfully suggest that the college, through its actions, encourages a robust dialogue and exchange of ideas,” Maher stated.
“I can speak to one policy in particular that was updated in June 2016,” Maher stated. “Last year, a committee was formed to take a close look at Keene State’s sexual misconduct policy, and the committee discussed the complexities surrounding questions of free speech and conduct on campus. As a result of this discussion, the committee decided to include a new section in our policy,” he stated.
According to Maher, that section reads as follows:
“Freedom of Speech:
The protections of the First Amendment must be carefully considered in all complaints involving speech or expressive conduct. The fact that speech or expressive conduct is offensive is not, standing alone, a sufficient basis to establish a violation of this policy. Students and faculty in an educational environment have robust speech rights, including the right to freely examine, exchange and debate diverse ideas. Speech or expressive conduct that constitutes sexual harassment is neither legally protected expression nor the proper exercise of academic freedom.”
Though this section was added to the policy, KSC was still given red and yellow light ratings in Sept. 2016.
KSC senior Nicole Mowat stumbled upon these ratings from FIRE during a class last semester. To read more about how she came across the FIRE organization, you can refer again to the Equinox’s article “Red light: KSC policies receive negative free speech rating.”
When Mowat found out the ratings have not changed in the past year, she said it “is very concerning.” She said, “Students should be the first concern for a college and the fact that FIRE has given us a Red Light repeatedly for our discriminatory and harassment policies makes me question KSC rules around protecting students and making everyone feel welcomed and valued.”
She said she believes the discriminatory and harassment policy is also “extremely vague” and “limits [students’] speech.”
“The yellow light rating on KSC’s event planning which is a policy that controls how students are allowed to express their opinion, is very restrictive and interferes with our freedom of speech,” Mowat said.
As for changes she’d like to see, Mowat said she “would like to see a change in the policy to allow more freedom and support towards the student voice.”
“Knowing my first amendment right is being limited brings me back to the same concerns I have about the policies around discrimination and harassment.
As KSC continues to restrain student voices we will continue to see a gap between the interest of students and the interest of the college,” she said.
In a follow-up phone interview with FIRE’s Majeed in early November of this year, he said it’s “disappointing” to see no change in KSC’s policy ratings.“We’re not asking for radical action,” Majeed said, “we’re just asking for schools to follow the law.”
Majeed said an important part of improving KSC’s policies is opening the revisions up to students. “It shouldn’t be that the administration comes up with the policies and students obey by them. Students should have input,” he said.
He said talking to students about what campus locations are really ideal [for public speech and event planning] and “what type of resources students would like available,” would be one way to get students involved with the revision of policies.
“Different schools face different challenges such as budget cuts or curriculum, but there is no reason free speech should be left behind,” Majeed said.
He said he encourages students to “be aware” of their rights on campus.
“I advise students not to be afraid to challenge administration, in a respectful and amicable way,” he said. “Be clear you have concerns,” Majeed said.
MacKenzie Clarke can be contacted at email@example.com
*Correction made 11/17/16 – Paragraph 2: corrected “from” to “for”*