Regents commit to safeguarding the rights of students to free expression
By KBOR President and CEO Blake Flanders, PhD
Freedom of speech is a right guaranteed in our Constitution, and it is a particularly significant value in higher education. Last year, the Kansas Board of Regents and student leaders at state universities expressed the importance of highlighting the right of free expression among students at our institutions.
During the past months, the Board office has worked with students and institutional leaders to develop a statement that asserts the value of students’ First Amendment rights and our commitment to upholding those rights. In March, all nine Regents signed the statement and this month directed state university leaders to ensure that their institutional policies align with the values and legal parameters expressed in that document.
While our statement merely reasserts rights that have been protected for centuries under the United States’ Constitution, it is nonetheless a critical step to re-affirm our unwavering support for those rights.
Many of us share an ardent desire for respectful dialogue, but a desire for civility alone cannot override the Constitutional right of students to express their views. A university does not have to endorse the views of every student, and indeed there will be some views that campus leaders and the broader campus community may find abhorrent. But as governmental entities, our universities must generally respect the rights of students to express themselves freely without fear of repercussion.
Free speech does not need guardrails because it is its own guardrail. A student has the right to express an idea that other students may find offensive, and those other students have the right to express how offensive they find that idea to be. Public entities have no right to step in and police exchanges of protected speech, and it is better that way. Students are smart, capable and passionate and can evaluate the opinions of their fellow students on the merits of the arguments they make.
Respecting the rights of students to freely express themselves does not mean that we cannot promote civil discourse through our own example. Campus leaders and faculty have an opportunity to model productive disagreement and mutual respect. But we do not have the authority to interfere with the protected free speech of our students.
In centuries of case law, only a few narrow exceptions to free speech rights have been identified. Those include true threats and targeted, unlawful harassment. The Regents’ statement acknowledges that these rare exceptions exist. The Board also did not attempt to parse free speech rights in a classroom setting, where students retain rights to express their views, but not to the extent that it inappropriately hinders the delivery of instruction.
It’s fitting that the statement adopted by the Regents would not have been possible without the work of students from the state universities. I’d like to thank the members of the Students Advisory Committee, especially chair Rija Khan, for their feedback and input throughout the process. The Board also relied on the work done by other states and institutions, including Kansas State University, to develop this statement on free expression.
The Regents’ statement on free expression is available at kansasregents.org/freespeech.