Missouri University Police Tell Students To Report “Hurtful” Statements

November 13, 2015 Jonathan Turley

Free speech advocates are increasingly uneasy about the response of University of Missouri to protests of racism on campus. Some of the incidents described by students are exercises of free speech. Those concerns were heightened with the videotape of a communications professor harassing and trying to get students to “muscle” out a student journalist. This concern was heightened even further by police asking students to report “hateful and/or hurtful” speech. We have been discussing the erosion of free speech on our campuses and the message seemed to invite the type of speech regulation that has been on the rise. Citizens are allowed to say “hurtful” things without being forced to answer for their exercise of free speech.

Monitoring and punishing hurtful statements threatens the most basic values of free speech in our universities. For those with controversial views, the police policy must have had the same feel as Mass communications professor Melissa Click calling for a show of “muscle” to target journalists. A complaint was filed by the student journalist against Professor Click who has now resigned her position.

The university’s student conduct code prohibits harassment, which it defines as “unwelcome verbal or physical conduct” against “actual or perceived membership in a protected class … that creates a hostile environment.” This includes conduct deemed to constitute bullying, retaliation and threatening or intimidating behaviors. The vagueness of these rules raise obvious unease for free speech advocates. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri has written to the university to raise these concerns.

I have a nephew who just started at Missouri who appears to love the school. Ironically, he went there for the school’s stellar reputation for journalism studies. If the university wants to remain a serious academic institution, it will have to examine the implications of some of these moves for free speech values that are so essential to the academic mission.

The incidents described by students include people driving around with Confederate flags on their trucks or posting or saying intolerant or threatening things. Some of these acts may indeed cross the line into threatening conduct. However, some statements are also exercises of free speech. While distasteful and “hurtful,” they are part of an open and robust dialogue in this country that has been traditionally protected through cases like New York Times v. Sullivan. If we start to prohibit “hurtful” thoughts from being expressed, a wide array of speech would be chilled in society. We have always maintained that the solution to bad speech is good speech — not speech regulation or coercion.

What do you think?