In 2017, Kansas State earned a “green light” rating on free speech from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It is still the only university in Kansas to receive this rating.
FIRE is a non-partisan nonprofit that defends the free speech of college students and faculty members, said Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform at FIRE.
The organization works to defend constitutionally protected speech by the standards of the Supreme Court in ways such as policy reform, direct defense work and litigation.
“To get the green light rating, it means that all of the policies that are on the books that regulate expression are not restricting speech that is constitutionally protected,” Beltz said. “The red light policies are ones that clearly and substantially restrict free speech. The yellow light policies are more ambiguous or narrow restrictions on free speech.”
Michelle Geering, public information officer for the K-State Division of Communications and Marketing, said via email that K-State’s statement on free speech and expression is based on the University of Chicago’s statement, which many other universities adopted.
“The purpose of the statement is to explain free speech and expression and highlight the importance in higher education,” Geering said.
“The ideas of different members of the University community will often and naturally conflict, and some individuals’ ideas will even conflict with the University’s values and principles. But it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable or even deeply offensive,” the K-State statement reads.
It also makes clear that there are restrictions.
“The freedom to debate and discuss the merits of competing ideas does not mean that individuals may say whatever they wish, wherever they wish,” according to the statement. “The University may restrict expression that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or unlawful discrimination or that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests. In addition, the University may reasonably regulate the time, place and manner of expression to ensure that it does not disrupt the ordinary activities of the University or endanger safety.”
Geering said K-State interprets the First Amendment based on federal courts.
“First Amendment rights are established in the U.S. Constitution and interpreted through long-standing case law by federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said.
A presentation entitled “What Can (and Can’t) Universities Do about ‘Hate Speech’ on Campus?” made in November 2017 by the Office of General Counsel explains part of the reasoning behind the university’s ideas on free speech.
“There is an understandable instinct to protect people from words that hurt, insult or offend them,” the presentation states. “So sometimes the first impulse is to suppress or censor those messages. But history has taught us that censorship is used mostly (almost always) to restrict and harm the most vulnerable, the most powerless and the most marginalized in our society.”
Beltz said the policies at K-State right now do not restrict protected speech and follow the legal standards.
“We’re hoping that other schools in the state will follow suit and revise their policies so they can also get this green light rating,” she said. “It’s great that K-State has revised all their policies and went above and beyond and adopted that statement on free speech.”