SMSU Criticized Nationally for Former Speech Code Policy

Old document on SMSU Web site attracts attention of free speech advocates

Kevin Danielson, News Editor

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SMSU received a “red light” rating for free speech from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit advocacy group focusing on students’ free speech rights, in November 2015. A red light is the group’s worst rating.

In an article by Samantha Harris, one of the lawyers employed by FIRE, SMSU was criticized as maintaining unlawful policies about cultural intolerance in its student Prohibited Code of Conduct.

“Under SMSU’s policy, any speech or expression that another student subjectively finds ‘demeaning’ or ‘belittling’ is subject to punishment,” Harris wrote.

Her article, headlined “Speech Code of the Month: Southwest Minnesota State University” said that because SMSU is a public university, it cannot “lawfully maintain” such a policy.

However, the reporter’s information came from a 2012 code of conduct that had since been revised.

The old regulation stated that “any verbal or physical contact directed at an individual or group such as racial slurs, jokes, or other behaviors that belittle a person’s race, color, gender preference, national origin, culture, history or disability is prohibited.”

Scott Crowell, SMSU Dean of Students said the policy was revised when MnSCU revised their language prior to 2014.

The policy FIRE criticized was not in effect at SMSU when Harris’ article was published. FIRE cited an old document of the Prohibited Code of Conduct dated June 12, 2012.

The regulation in place today (MnSCU policy 1.B.1) does not contain the “cultural intolerance” language that FIRE denounced.

Crowell said he learned of the issue when he received correspondence from FIRE claiming that SMSU had an illegal regulation on the student handbook.
The old code of conduct has been deleted from SMSU’s website.

Despite this fact, FIRE’s writer maintains that her reporting was accurate, citing a PDF in her article of the outdated policy that existed on SMSU’s website at the time of her research.

“We did not make false allegations,” Harris said, stating that if a student went on SMSU’s website and found the outdated policy, they would think that was the current policy.

“For all intents and purposes, it did exist on the website,” Harris said.

FIRE’s reporting led “The College Fix,” a publication that says it delivers “RIGHT-minded news and commentary,” to investigate the claim.
“The College Fix” published a Jan. 20 story stating that a “free speech victory” had occurred at SMSU. The story is currently on the main page of the publication’s website.

“A code of conduct at Southwest Minnesota State University that banned ‘cultural intolerance’ and demeaning jokes was revised after the rules were accused of hindering students’ free speech rights,” wrote Notre Dame student Kate Hardiman, a reporter for “The College Fix.”

Hardiman’s article claimed that “university officials took a closer look at the policy and subsequently revised it.”

Crowell said the language of the code had been revised much earlier, but only found the old language of the document after receiving FIRE’s correspondence.

While Crowell dismissed the issue as a “non-story,” the Spur learned about SMSU’s red light rating from FIRE when Lee Hale, a producer from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, D.C. emailed the Spur saying he was “curious about the recent changes to SMSU’s Code of Conduct,” and wanted to talk to the Spur staff about it.

The Spur also located stories in a Jan. 25 article in “City Pages,” an alternative newspaper in the Twin Cities; a Jan. 21 article in “The Washington Times,” a conservative daily newspaper in Washington, D.C.; and in “MinnPost’s” Jan. 22 news roundup, “The Glean.”

In addition, “The Daily Collegian,” the independent student newspaper of Penn State University, wrote a Jan. 22 editorial defending the previous code, which prohibited cultural intolerance.

“At a medium sized college in the southwest of Minnesota, freedom of speech has come under fire on a national scale. Southwest Minnesota State University recently garnered national attention for a provision, and then revision, within their student code of conduct,” the editorial said.

The Spur is continuing to investigate this story.

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