Missouri has become the second state to give college students more room on campus for protests, marches and other peaceful expressions of free speech.
A bill signed this week by Gov. Jay Nixon and effective Aug. 28 stops colleges and universities from limiting locations where students can protest, as flocks of Missouri students did last year with chants, pickets and “die-ins” against police brutality after racially charged incidents in Ferguson, Mo.
The Missouri Campus Free Expression Act says that “the outdoor areas of campuses of public institutions of higher education in this state shall be deemed traditional public forums.” Schools that violate the law could be taken to court and fined at least $500 for the initial violation, plus $50 for each day the violation continues.
The same protections granted in the Missouri law were made for students in Virginia last spring.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, one in six top colleges and universities in the country has a designated free speech zone — limited space on campus where student expression is permitted without a permit. The University of Missouri is on that list.
“Free speech zones were set to restrict student speech,” said Joe Cohn, the foundation’s legislative and policy director. “We are really proud of this bill making campuses … better places for free speech. Universities can’t just shift students into small places on campus to speak out, and that’s the way it should be everywhere.”
MU officials and lawyers are reviewing the law and the school’s policy to see what changes are needed, university spokesman Christian Basi said.
Basi said MU has always encouraged free speech “as long as their freedom of expression does not infringe upon the rights of others by disrupting the normal operations and functions occurring on campus.”
“We have accommodated individuals and groups who wish to express themselves publicly by providing a speakers circle in the center of our campus where they can be most visible without interfering with the normal functions of a very busy campus,” he said.
Holding student events elsewhere on campus requires a permit.
But the new law says students must be allowed “to spontaneously and contemporaneously assemble.”
The law does allow for some “time, place and manner restrictions” if they come with a reasonable explanation that the limits serve “a compelling institutional interest.” For example, protests could be limited near a university hospital.
In St. Joseph, Missouri Western State University has a policy prohibiting the use of bullhorns.
“We will have to tweak our policy to get it in conformity, but we are not far off,” said Tim Kissock, risk manager at the university.