COLUMN: Mun Choi’s defense of free speech doesn’t match his actions

In recent emails, the MU administration made a decision to sanction student protestors while also defending free speech at the university.

Jamie Holcomb is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about campus life and social justice for The Maneater.

Disclaimer: this article was written before MU changed its decision to punish student protestors and instead has given them a warning, citing that these students were unaware of the university’s policies about protest.

MU’s Chancellor Mun Choi sent an email to the student body on Oct. 6 stating the administration’s intent to punish student group Mizzou 600 for protesting in Jesse Hall on Oct. 2. Choi alleged that the students held a “very disruptive event” that violated the university’s protest policies since the students “yelled and used profanities”.

The following day, students received another email with university news, including a report of a survey about free speech on college campuses. MU was ranked 13th nationally by a 2020 Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, RealClearEducation, and CollegePulse survey. Students also ranked MU highest in the administrative support category in this survey, with over half responding that they would feel comfortable being critical of the university.

However, students that choose to criticize MU now risk facing punishment.

The two messages show that MU has inconsistent views on free speech. Mizzou 600 protestors exercised their First Amendment right to free speech, yet are still being punished by MU.

“Free speech is not only a hallmark of our democracy, but also a vital component of the college experience,” Choi said. This directly contradicts his statement about punishing Mizzou 600. If free speech were important to Choi and his administration, he would allow students to air their grievances without fear of sanctions.

Mizzou 600 released a statement and list of demands on Twitter after their Oct. 2 protest, calling MU a racist institution. The group insists that the administration shows they care about Black students by creating a scholarship in honor of Gus T. Ridgel, among other demands. Following the notification that students involved in the protest would be punished, Mizzou 600 tweeted links encouraging people to send emails directed at the administration in defense of the protest. They also retweeted a petition for sanctions to be dropped.

MU student and faculty groups tweeted messages in support of Mizzou 600. Concerned Faculty 1969 released a statement on Twitter expressing their concerns about Mizzou 600’s disciplinary hearings. This group of MU faculty was formed in solidarity with other student groups, sharing their concerns about the consolidation of power in the administration, among other issues.

The faculty group acknowledged that Mizzou 600 broke university policies because they “used a sound amplification device … without a permit” and “public spaces and facilities ... for an ‘unscheduled expressive event’.” However, the faculty group’s statement also notes that these policies were rewritten in an attempt to restrict students’ right to assemble following the 2015 student protests.

The university has been inconsistent with enforcing these policies. A group of protestors previously used a bullhorn to call attention to MU’s lack of COVID-19 safety precautions and were not punished, as noted by the faculty group’s statement. The protest, organized by Missouri Coalition for Covid Safety, took place at Francis Quadrangle. Protestors passed around a megaphone to voice their concerns, but aren’t receiving sanctions like Mizzou 600.

MU’s hypocritical and conflicting actions regarding this protest are evidence of a larger pattern of rejecting dissent among students and faculty. Choi has previously blocked student journalists on Twitter for questioning his leadership and told professors that wanted the Thomas Jefferson statue removed to instead support the board’s decision to keep it on campus.

It’s clear that Choi is uninterested in listening to people who disagree with him, which stands in stark contrast to his earlier statement about supporting free speech.

To create an inclusive environment on campus, Choi must allow students and faculty to come to the administration with concerns about the university. They shouldn’t have to fear being punished or threatened into silence by the same administrators who claim to care about what they have to say. Given his pattern of hypocritical leadership, Choi seems unfit to establish a campus environment where people feel comfortable speaking their minds.

The Maneater is encouraging readers to donate to Race Matter Friends, a Columbia organization that has organized a bail fund to help those waiting for trial that can’t afford to pay their bail. https://racemattersfriends.com/community-bail-fund/

Edited by Sofi Zeman I szeman@themaneater.com

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