MU students found posters sponsored by white supremacist group the Midwestern Alliance posted around campus last week. The flyers were found on university bulletin boards, and according to KOMU, were ripped down by students.
In response, MU sent out an email warning students of the activity of white supremacists on campus and provided the Office for Civil Rights & Title IX as a resource for reporting any other activity.
“One of the core values of the University of Missouri is respect,” Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said in the email. “As such, we are committed to fostering a community of inclusion.”
According to the MU Business Policy and Procedure Manual, “visitors” may post fliers as long as “the material does not state or imply that it is connected with the University of Missouri, distribution of materials does not constitute a violation of applicable state or federal laws, [and] materials are not distributed from unmanned receptacles or left in unmanned piles (e.g., leaflets left on vehicles are prohibited).”
Since Midwestern Alliance followed this policy, the university cannot take any further action. As long as an individual follows the policies and peacefully states their opinion, MU cannot restrict it.
“In a classroom, the university can make sure that the speech that’s going on is all about the topic of the class,” said Lyrissa Lidsky, dean of MU law school and acclaimed First Amendment scholar. “But, in these common areas that have been designated for use as free speech areas for students and visitors, the university cannot impose what is called content-based restrictions on the speech. In other words, the university is not allowed to take the speech down or punish the speaker just because they don’t like what the speaker said.”
Speech, on campus and off campus, is protected by the First Amendment. Even if the speech isn’t agreeable, it cannot be restricted.
“One of the things that I think is commonly misunderstood is people think that hate speech is a category that can be legally restricted,” Lidsky said. “Hate speech is not itself a legal category. Speech that’s hateful and offensive is often protected by the First Amendment, unless it falls into a category like true threats, incitement, obscenity or libel.”
The only way MU can restrict speech is through the method the speech is being delivered in. For instance, MU is allowed to restrict the use of megaphones, but not the message the speaker is trying to say.
After the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Aug. 12, universities across the country have been taking action to weed out potential white supremacy movements from their campuses, some even restricting white supremacy speakers.
On Aug. 17, Michigan State University didn’t allow white supremacist Richard Spencer to speak on campus. due to security concerns.
Lidsky said that many other universities have also restricted white supremacist leaders out of concern for the security of their students, not a speaker’s content. She also expressed a possibility for legal action.
“It’s my understanding that there may be lawsuits to follow based on the argument that [Michigan State University] unconstitutionally restricted the free speech rights of Mr. Spencer,” Lidsky said.
MU spokesman Christian Basi said that if a similar request were to happen at MU, his department would have to examine it.
“We’ve had many speakers on campus that have talked about topics that are controversial in nature,” said Basi. “We’re very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to have ongoing discussions about controversial topics so that people have the opportunity to listen if they so desire and extend the discussion about these topics, because that’s what the university is about, in part, here to do.”
Basi also mentioned that MU doesn’t like to restrict speech even if the message is unagreeable, as long as it’s being delivered in a peaceful manner.
Edited by Sarah Hallam | firstname.lastname@example.org