EDITORIAL: WSU free speech policies need a revamp

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.

Once again, the topic of free speech has surfaced at Wichita State University.

On March 6, The Sunflower reported that Shockers for Life, a registered student organization dedicated to promoting an “active pro-life culture” on campus, extensively chalked the sidewalk in front of the Rhatigan Student Center.

Despite the organization’s registered status and their photo proof of express permission for the demonstration from an RSC event coordinator, they were required to remove the chalkings. At the time, Vice President for Student Affairs Teri Hall believed Shockers for Life had not asked permission before writing their messages.

“Our policy is that if you don’t have a reservation in for chalking, then Student Involvement will call them to say you need to clean this up,” Hall said. “The group who put it will have to clean it up.”

The demonstration raised questions about free speech on campus, especially in light of WSU’s poor track record on First Amendment rights.

In December, The Sunflower reported that in its annual report, 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.”

According to FIRE, Wichita State is the worst Kansas university for free speech.

FIRE singled 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.”

In addition to that blatantly restrictive policy, the university enforces a controversial policy of “free speech zones,” which designates limited and specific campus locations for First Amendment demonstrations.

According to Hall, university stakeholders are currently reevaluating WSU’s free speech policies and plan to completely do away with the free speech zone policy.

This is a step in the right direction.

However, The Shockers for Life demonstration has refocused attention on the dire state of university free speech policy.

Wichita State’s free speech policies need to be completely revamped to make campus more friendly to the First Amendment. This includes the total elimination of the 72 hours advance notice requirement before participating in free speech events.

When updating the policies, the university shouldn’t aim for the strictest measure they can enact by the Supreme Court’s “time, place and manner” rule, but how the university — a place that is supposed to be a catalyst for the exchange of information and ideas — can be as friendly as possible towards students and their right to free speech.