Keene State College has recently become a safer space for the freedom of speech, at least according to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
According to its website www.thefire.org, FIRE is a non-profit organization whose mission is to “defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. FIRE uses a green, yellow, and red light system to rate free speech policies on campuses, with a “green light” rating meaning that there are no free speech inhibiting policies in effect. A “red light” rating meaning that at least one policy clearly violates the freedom of speech. The Equinox reported in an article published on March 10, 2016 when KSC was given a red light rating by FIRE.
“The challenge for us to get a green light rating with FIRE was exclusively tied to the language within our policies. The policies haven’t changed, the language of how we define some of the policy details have been aligned with those of Plymouth and UNH,” Interim President Melinda Treadwell said.
Treadwell said that KSC cooperated with FIRE around policies which the organization felt blocked the sharing of free opinion, freedom to assemble and access to information through the college’s networks.
“We just helped clarify what the intention was and, where needed, we put in new language in the policy to help articulate more clearly to someone who is not of our community what we mean by access, by free speech and by those sorts of details. It was translating our language, really, in a way that was more receptive and ensuring freedom and openness of information sharing,” Treadwell said.
Associate Vice President for Institutional Equity and Diversity Dottie Morris said that while the wording of some policies were of concern to FIRE, none of KSC’s actual policies were detrimental to free speech, “The areas that we received the red light we were notified of those by FIRE. We looked at it and had conversations with representatives at FIRE. Our policy was not restrictive of speech; they had concerns of some of the wording, but we were not restricting of speech.”
Morris said that one example of an area of concern for FIRE was KSC students’ right to assemble on campus.
“There was another situation around being able to have a space on campus where people could do spontaneous kinds of presentations, or discussions, or engage in their right to free speech. At one point they thought that we had too many restrictions on how people could get that space and so that was changed. A lot of those were in place for safety reasons because if we’re [going to] have a large group of people with anything you have to have some guidelines in place to keep people safe and to not block sidewalks,” Morris said.
Treadwell said that some of the most important changes KSC made to attain the green light rating were those that emphasized KSC’s dedication to open dialogue.
“We’ve tried to open up and make very clear declarative statements about the fact that multiple opinions are welcome here. That as a liberal arts institution we value that. So I think that making it very clear that free speech means all speech and that we hope that we can engage in dialogue, not positional argumentation but dialogue, and that we won’t silence different opinions, instead we have to confront opinions and learn from them, so I think the changes to those elements of our policy just to state our values more, I think those are very important, so the values of openness, the values to commitment to free speech were really important to me and the college,” Treadwell said.
Despite KSC going from a red to green light in FIRE’s rating system, Morris said that she has not noticed any changes to the free speech atmosphere on campus: “Because [the changes] were not that significant I haven’t noticed any changes on campus. No one had filed any complaints that their speech had been restricted in any way.”
To senior communications major Mackenzie Donovan, not all of KSC’s free speech concerns were rooted in policy language. Donovan said that freedom of speech on campus means a lot to her since she said that she had been discriminated against for her conservative views: “I’m very lucky to have found one professor who is okay with me being outspoken with my conservative viewpoints. I’m a research assistant for her as well, even though other professors tried to dissuade her from taking me on because they knew I was conservative.”
Donovan said at the time she felt the need to hide her views in fear of academic consequences.
“A lot of my course grades are about participation and discussion, and the professors make everything about politics even if the subject has nothing to do with politics and I’m not [going to] let my participation grade suffer because some students can’t handle the fact that I think differently than them,” Donovan said.
Despite the aforementioned incidents, Donovan said she thinks that the college is heading in the right direction in regards to freedom of speech, “I think they’re heading in the right direction for sure. The college did decide to back me up when other students complained that I was a quote/unquote threat to their personal safety and security because I liked conservative articles on facebook. So they’re already doing good things and I definitely appreciate more support for differing opinions.”
Morris said that the free speech discussion on campus is an important one to continue.
“We need to have those really complex, nuanced pieces about what does it mean to have a campus where freedom of speech is honored, and is embraced as an important piece, an integral piece, to the educational process and academic excellent,” Morris said.
KSC plans on continuing the discussion on the freedom of speech on campus, according to Treadwell.
“This Fall we’re launching a whole host of listening sessions with students, with faculty and staff, to discuss what is free speech at Keene State, what are the things that would be hate speech for instance, so how do we define our world a little bit, and then we’ll make changes to our policies to be sure we’re there at maintaining that openness, maintaining that space, and we’ll work with FIRE to make sure that we don’t run into language confusion again where they think we aren’t doing something that we actually are in the way that our policies are written. We’re gonna push ourselves to talk about free speech and making sure we hold those values and then make changes to policies and work with FIRE to make sure they don’t misunderstand that openness we’re still committing to,” Treadwell said.
On September 7th, 2018, an email was sent out signed by both Treadwell and Morris announcing the dates of four KSC Campus Community Dialogue opportunities, events open to the KSC community to encourage input and conversation on the issue of freedom of speech on campus.
Vincent Moore can be contacted at