Editorial – Right to Know: Code of Conduct at SMSU

When someone makes a claim that a public institution is violating constitutional rights, it is hard to ignore. That’s why the Spur took it seriously when the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported on their website that “SMSU’s Prohibited Code of Conduct for students bans ‘cultural intolerance’.”

In Nov. 2015, FIRE located a sentence from the Prohibited Code of Conduct published on SMSU’s website that they found to be illegal. The sentence was, “Any verbal or physical contact directed at an individual or group such as racial slurs, jokes, or other behaviors that demean or belittle a person’s race, color, gender preference, national origin, culture, history or disability, is prohibited.”

The problem is, SMSU had adopted a code with new language in 2014 that states, “Discriminatory harassment means verbal or physical conduct that is directed at an individual because of his or her protected class, and that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to have the purpose or effect of creating a hostile work or educational environment.” This language apparently is not objectionable to FIRE.

At the time of FIRE’s investigation, the Prohibited Code of Conduct existed in two places on the SMSU Web site. One was in Judicial Affairs, and one was in the Student Handbook. The updated code had existed within the Student Handbook at least since that page’s last update on July 30, 2014.

The updated code was not correctly represented on the Judicial Affairs page when Samantha Harris, a lawyer/reporter employed by FIRE, scoured the Web for speech codes the organization could challenge.

Harris chastised SMSU’s code in the organization’s online publication, “The Torch”. FIRE also sent a letter about what they viewed as illegal in the code to Scott Crowell, SMSU’s Vice President of Student Affairs.

Crowell told the Spur that the incorrect prohibited speech code published on the Student Judicial Affairs page has since been updated to the correct one. He has not responded to the Spur’s emails and phone calls asking who was responsible for not having changed the Judicial Affairs’ site to reflect the current policy.

Shortly after this change, “The College Fix,” a national student newspaper that follows free speech issues at universities across the country, claimed a victory for free speech on SMSU’s campus.

From there, SMSU’s supposed free speech violation and “revised” speech code started to pop up in newspapers, Web sites, and tweets around the country, all representing SMSU as politically incorrect speakers who have been chided and corrected by FIRE.

A good journalist does their research thoroughly. FIRE erroneously claimed in their Jan. 29 story that “the judicial affairs website was the only place for students to read the conduct code.” She also points out that, “no one has actually come forward with a version of the document that was updated between June 12, 2012 and Nov. 20, 2015.”

However, within the Student Handbook, one can locate the Prohibited Code of Conduct that clearly states at the bottom that it was updated July 30, 2014.

In fact, using the search bar on the SMSU home page and typing Code of Conduct will direct people to this version, so claiming that the Judicial Affairs version was the sole copy is simply false.

Harris’ hasty investigating aside, harassment is not protected under the right to free speech.  SMSU is a public university, and by enrolling in the university, students have to agree to abide by the standards of conduct set by the university.

Kelly Von Ruden of the Judicial Affairs department at Metropolitan State University pointed out that, “Individuals sign off to certain rights and expectations for admission [to a public university]. It’s just like accepting a job offer; one is bound to the rules outlined by the job.”

SMSU Professor of Business Administration and lawyer Mark Goodenow agrees.

“You can’t have freedom without boundaries,” Goodenow said. “You can support free speech and understand that some speech is destructive.”

The Spur wholeheartedly supports the ideas in the SMSU Mission Statement, which states, “We value a safe environment for intellectual expression and encourage open and civil communication.”

The Mission Statement also says, “We embrace diversity by developing a quality, comprehensive educational environment that fosters interaction among people of all religions, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, physical abilities, and ages.”

The language FIRE objected to does a great deal to protect the ideals in these statements that SMSU’s administration, faculty, and staff have pledged to reach.

The Spur believes that the student body should have a voice regarding the policies of the student Code of Conduct, especially free speech. Yet, despite our reporters’ best efforts, we cannot get a solid answer on who decides to make changes to the policy as it is right now. This is a public university that needs students in order to survive. Everyone has a right to know.

We hope that communication between administration and students becomes more clear and direct on campus. If the student body cannot get answers about important information for students, then what value of trust is there between university and student body?