Watchdog group gives WSU worst possible campus free speech rating

Protesters+argue+with+officers+about+if+they+have+to+move+from+in+front+of+the+Law+Enforcement+Training+Center+ahead+of+Attorney+General+Bill+Barr%27s+October+visit.+Protesters+were+ultimately+allowed+to+stay.

Matthew Kelly

Protesters argue with officers about if they have to move from in front of the Law Enforcement Training Center ahead of Attorney General Bill Barr's October visit. Protesters were ultimately allowed to stay.

A prominent First Amendment watchdog group has downgraded Wichita State’s campus free speech rating to the group’s worst possible mark.

In its annual report on free speech at U.S. colleges, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave WSU a “red light” rating, indicating the university has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

Twenty-five percent of universities in the report were given “red-light” ratings, but WSU was the only university in Kansas to receive the mark. WSU was downgraded from a “yellow light” in last year’s report, which indicates that at least one policy could be interpreted as restricting protected speech.

In an email statement to The Sunflower, WSU spokesperson Joe Kleinsasser said the university’s policies are “intended to create a safe campus with the best atmosphere for learning.”  

“We regularly review our policies and we’re happy to hear ideas from all viewpoints,” Kleinsasser wrote.

FIRE singles out a WSU policy that requires people to notify the university at least 72 hours before engaging in “First Amendment Activities,” which include “distribution of information leaflets” and “meetings to display group feelings or sentiments.”

Kleinsasser said the policy aims to protect free speech activities while balancing the rights of others on campus.

“All individuals are entitled to conduct their lawful business at the University without interference or disruption,” Kleinsasser wrote. “University buildings, facilities and grounds are not available for unrestricted use by individuals and groups for purposes of constitutionally protected speech, assembly or expression.”

FIRE is also critical of WSU’s Sexual Misconduct, Relationship Violence, and Stalking Policy for Students, which defines sexual harassment as “(u)nwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”

“Sexual harassment includes unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and/or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,” the policy reads.

Laura Beltz, an attorney for FIRE, told The Kansas City Star that such broad policies do not follow U.S. Supreme Court standards for defining unwelcome sexual conduct.

The court has deemed that such conduct must be “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” by a reasonable person who is similar to the victim, Beltz told The Star.

Kleinsasser said WSU is committed to eliminating sexual misconduct, relationship violence, and stalking in the university community.

“The University has a responsibility to eliminate the behavior, prevent its recurrence, and address its effects on any individual and/or the community,” Kleinsasser wrote, maintaining that “(a)ll policies will be interpreted and applied consistent with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

In March, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would withhold federal grant money from colleges that fail to promote free speech and follow federal rules guiding free expression.

“Under the guise of speech codes, safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity, and shut down the voices of great young Americans,” Trump said during the signing ceremony.

Free-speech groups caution that the order provides no clear process for evaluating fair implementation on college campuses.

“Such lack of definition could lead to administrative standards being developed or arbitrarily implemented which chill free speech or inquiry, or which might be used to advance specific political agendas,” the Student Press Law Center wrote in a press release.

WSU has landed a number of major federal grants in recent years. Asked in March if the university’s “yellow light” free speech rating could jeopardize federal funding, WSU officials dismissed the notion.

“We’ve always been a strong supporter of the First Amendment — the board of regents has always been a strong supporter of the First Amendment — so we don’t see any issues or concerns,” WSU Chief of Staff Andy Schlapp said at the time.

Kleinsasser did not respond specifically to The Sunflower’s Wednesday inquiry about how WSU’s “red light” free speech downgrade could affect federal funding.

Kansas State was the only state university to earn a “green-light” rating in FIRE’s report, indicating that none of their policies seriously threaten free expression on campus. The University of Kansas, Fort Hays State, and Pittsburg State received “yellow light” ratings, and Emporia State was not included in the report.