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Recent examples on MU’s campus bring up questions of free speech


Three incidents in just a couple of months' time on the University of Missouri's campus have raised questions about what can be considered free speech and what expression is not protected.

Not long ago, flyers with white supremacist messages were found hanging around campus. Not long after, a student sent private messages to a friend containing racial slurs. Most recently in December, a pro-life display was vandalized by multiple students on campus.

According to an expert in constitutional law, the term "hate speech" is a common misconception.

Instead, there is speech that falls under the category of true threats and fighting words. Neither of them is protected by the First Amendment.

Fighting words can be described as words that trigger a violent response from the person at whom they are directed. True threats are considered threats directed at a person, threatening physical harm or the victim's safety.

David Roland, director of litigation for the Freedom Center of Missouri, said college campuses are public forums where anyone can speak their mind no matter how controversial or upsetting.

"College campuses are a traditional public forum," he said. "People are allowed to speak what's on their minds, share their opinions even if those opinions are controversial, even if those opinions may be quite offensive.

"Sometimes we have to allow people to use their liberties in ways that we really don't like. Ways that are offensive or inconvenient, but we have to protect free expression under those circumstances to insure that we'll have free expression for ourselves."

The social media direct message and the flyers did not target anyone specifically. Therefore, the wording is protected under the First Amendment.

A student organization made a display with permission from MU on campus to raise awareness for the anti-abortion movement. The display included hundreds of flags, some of which were stolen.

Numerous students were caught and ticketed by police or referred for student discipline.

The problem was that the flags and signs that were taken were private property.

While some tried to argue they were counter-protesting, this does not excuse them from taking property belonging to others, experts say.

Spokesman Christian Basi said the University of Missouri has no tolerance for hatred. However, administrators also want to encourage free speech even on difficult subjects. When action is warranted, it will be taken, Basi said.

"We are very fortunate at the university to have a number of resources that will review incidents that happen on campus," Basi said. "They determine if any disciplinary action or potentially more significant action needs to take place."

Because the flyers and social media message are considered free speech, there is nothing the university can do except condemn and disapprove of the actions of those who are responsible, Basi said.

The Missouri Legislative Black Caucus released a statement on Tuesday commenting on MU’s response. 

“What this student said was wrong. It caused genuine distress among the Black student body and left them feeling unprotected and unappreciated in a place where they are meant to learn and grow into valued members of society.," the statement read. “Though the administration says punishment of this individual is not an option, the university should use this opportunity to redouble its efforts against racism, antisemitism and other dangerous ideologies that dehumanize both the discriminated and the discriminator. Our caucus will watch for their next steps vigilantly.”

The university issued a statement later on Tuesday in response to the Caucus.

"The university would like to thank the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus for their statement," Basi wrote. "We will always condemn language and actions that are racist, discriminatory and hateful, and we will continue to be a university that welcomes everyone with diverse backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. "

Article Topic Follows: University of Missouri

Ethan Heinz


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