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KCUR conversation prompts reflection on freedom of speech at UMKC

Imagine being expelled from your university based on something you said.

This may sound extreme, but it happens more often than you’d think.

“You can get in trouble for saying almost anything these days on a college campus,” said Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and KCUR’s Central Standard’s featured guest on Nov. 8.

Quentin Savwoir, a political science communications student at Rockhurst, and I were also invited to weigh in on our own experiences at our respective campuses, facilitated by KCUR’s Jabulani Leffall.

Listening to Lukianoff list numerous instances at universities around the country at which students were banned from campuses or threatened with legal action by administration for exercising freedom of speech triggered my own concern with trends in higher education and the role UMKC is playing in this borderline-stifling of basic rights.

His opinion of designated protest and demonstration spaces is negative and he said policies requiring 10-day notice infringe on the first amendment.  UMKC has two designated free speech spaces—and expects a 10-day advance notice.

Lukianoff gave a recent example of a university that didn’t notify the student body of a visit from Paul Ryan, the 2012 Vice President nominee on the Republican ticket, until three days before the scheduled event. In this instance, students weren’t able to submit an advanced notice and were not allowed to protest.

This has happened right here at UMKC as well.  When Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-Fil-A, publicly stated his personal opinion against homosexual marriage, many students wanted to react immediately in the form of a protest outside the Student Union, only to run into the obstacle of not only notifying administration in advance, but also being unable to gather outside the Student Union because it wasn’t a designated space.

A contradiction to that statement occurred on Oct. 24 when an equal-opportunity hate preacher posted at the exact location these students were told was off limits and was not asked to leave. Much to the administration’s dismay, the General Council for the entire University of Missouri system informed our administration that the preacher was allowed to speak at that location.

This confusion and discrepancy in information leads me to believe that better communication and assessment of the campus rules and regulations are necessary. And I wasn’t shy about vocalizing this point on KCUR.

I was equally interested in a comment Lukianoff made about students on other campuses disposing of mass amounts of the student-run newspaper due to dissatisfaction with an article.  Though the cause was never identified, U-News had a similar experience last semester when large quantities of one issue “mysteriously” vanished from distribution sites.

Savwoir confessed his time at Rockhurst has been tame, witnessing no protests and minimal backlash from students about administration decisions. Our neighboring campus is either a utopian entity or the students aren’t paying enough attention.  If everything seems to be running smoothly, there is too much grease, as Professor Robert Unger would say.

We also openly discussed the allotment for critical thinking in the classroom. Lukianoff and I had relatively similar opinions, stating that certain teachers can have hidden agendas.  Personally, my experiences in my major-specific courses have been positive, constantly allowing open discussion and engagement with the professors.

The first college course I’ve ever dropped was due to a professor’s resistance to open-mindedly accept disagreement from his students, often cutting off student discussions with his own unrelated anecdotes and extremist viewpoints that added nothing to the conversation. Of course, reflecting back on the First Amendment, he was allowed to state his opinion. However, his opinion often overruled that of the entire class, limiting the educational merit of the course.

This is why I don’t entirely fault administration for the policies and procedures currently in place. Lukianoff stated his theory that campuses draft these regulations in fear of liability.  I think that’s a wise concern on behalf of the University.

After all, they are working in higher education.  That should be the priority.  I wouldn’t want my coursework and learning experience to be dampened by a university that enables everyone to be radical free-agents constantly pointing accusatory fingers.

However, as a generation that harbored the Occupy movement, continues to push the Civil Rights movement even further and has technological means of voicing opinions more than ever before, a reassessment of the language and policies currently in place could alleviate pressure, confusion and a feeling of inhibition. UMKC could take this opportunity to reinvent the stigma Lukianoff convincingly reports and set a better example for other post-secondary institutions.

rbrooks@unews.com

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