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FIRE sparks First Amendment discussion

Encourages students defend freedom of speech, look into school policies

Associate News Editor

Published: Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Updated: Thursday, October 20, 2011 01:10

FIRE - First Amendment discussion 10-20-11

George Mattingly | The Houstonian

BE UNAFRAID OF THE UNCOMFORTABLE. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) administrator Adam Kissel encouraged students to know and defend their First Amendment rights.

Several university policies across the nation and at Sam Houston State University were called unconstitutional by a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) administrator that spoke to students and faculty on Wednesday.

Universities such as Heinz Community College and the University of California-San Diego were only a couple of the examples Adam Kissel, vice president of programs of FIRE, used to describe student free speech rights on college campuses.

FIRE is a non-litigation rights group that focuses on free speech issues in higher education.

In addition, he spoke about numerous campus policies, both good and bad, that deal with First Amendment rights. He began talking about the policies by commending the "promise of free speech" that SHSU has for students.

"This is a really good policy, one that we consider a ‘green light,'" Kissel said. "This is a promise by the university to allow [students] to have difficult conversations, even if the community doesn't necessarily agree."

FIRE considers university policies in three different categories: Green light, which means it doesn't "seriously imperil speech." Yellow light, meaning a policy that could "significantly reduce" free speech; and red light, which "clearly and substantially" restricts free speech rights.

Currently on FIRE's website, SHSU is listed as a red light campus. Kissel showed event attendees two policies that have red light status with the organization.

One policy is in the Code of Student Conduct and Discipline that addresses "disruptive behavior." Kissel said terms like "vulgar" can be open to a wide interpretation and can limit rights.

"All one person has to do is pull out this policy and say, ‘I was offended,' and that's it," he said. "It doesn't follow that objective person standard."

The second policy listed as red light is within the Student Guidelines dealing with "Parades, Publications, Demonstrations and Rallies."

The policy states, "No group or person, whether or not a student or employee, shall publicly display, distribute, or disseminate on the component campus any petition, handbill, or piece of literature, work, or material that is obscene, vulgar, or libelous, or that advocates the deliberate violation of any federal, state, or local law."

Kissel said some parts of the rule are necessary, but others violate the Constitution.

"Basically, this is anything in Banned Books Week," he said. "You can advocate for violent government overthrow, as long as you don't take steps to do so."

He said the interaction between peers, especially on a college campus, is important to a "good education."

"You need to be empowered [to question]," Kissel said.

"Like John Stuart Mill said, ‘The idea that you hate might be right.' But you have to have conversations with people to know if you do, and if nowhere else it should be on a college campus."

Kissel came to campus after a Free Speech Wall, sponsored by the SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Young Democratic-Socialists, Bearkat Democrats and College Republicans, was destroyed by a faculty member and campus police ordered the groups to censor the wall.

"There was political conversation going on in this wall," Kissel said. "You can say that it's high or low quality, but that's not the government's business. It's not the university's business."

Several audience members asked Kissel after his speech what the next step should be in protesting policies. He said that they should take the "nice steps", before taking any steps toward litigation.

"Students need to advocate for their first amendment rights with university administrators," Kissel said.

"Exercise your rights. Encourage the difficult conversations. Know your rights and protect them."

Kissel will be speaking to Lone Star College-Kingswood about First Amendment rights to students and faculty today.

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