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Education news and issues in the Ozarks.

President Smart on MSU’s Free Speech Zones, Importance of Public Expression

Brother Jed Smock (center) occupying one of Missouri State University's free speech zones in April. He preaches in a style known as confrontational evangelism.

At college campuses across the U.S., free speech zones exist to allow people from outside the school to express themselves.

At Missouri State University, content neutral speech can take place at three such areas; behind Strong Hall, north of the football stadium, and north of the Plaster Student Union. And those wanting to utilize the space must request a permit, which can allow for up to eight hours of expression.

“They need to tell us when they wanna be here. They choose which spot they wanna be in – one of the spots allows for increased volume, the others do not.”

The exception, says MSU President Clif Smart, is that MSU students, faculty and staff can use the entire outdoor area of campus for free speech expression.

“The free speech zones allow us to regulate those who are not a part of our campus community who are not a part of our campus folks.”

In the case of a sit-in at inside Plaster Student Union last year, which did not comply with the university’s policy, students were still allowed to protest as it was done silently and not in a classroom building, Smart says.

“We don’t want to eliminate speech; we want to encourage people to be able to express their ideas. And to the extent that it can be done, even if it’s outside our policies, we’re gonna try to work with people to allow that to occur.”

The biggest complaints Smart gets regarding free speech on campus?

“Are from the fringe, outside of campus speakers, typically preachers that come on, intentionally confronting our students, often saying ugly things about them, many of them women calling them derogatory names.”

But our constitution allows such speech, Smart says.

“It’s “kind of the price we pay sometimes to live in a free society. And it’s unfortunate that people decide they wanna do that, but it’s a piece of free speech in America.”

And occasionally, students will push back against such language. As they should, says Smart.

“I do encourage our students to, as you say, rally and protect each other and respond as appropriate in a peaceful way that we don’t believe in these kinds of principals.”

While Smart says there is no content restriction on what a particular group or individual is going to say, campus security is sometimes dispatched to monitor the situation should the comments prove incendiary.

Meanwhile, several similar bills (SB-93, HB-408 and HB-436) have been introduced in this year’s Missouri legislative session that would deem outdoor of public universities “traditional public forums” that are protected by the First Amendment, in effect eliminating free speech zones.

Smart says MSU has been working with lawmakers to incorporate language that, if passed, would still allow officials to regulate time, place, and manner.

“Our goal is to promote the interaction of ideas, and dialogue, and even fringe ideas and fringe dialogue and even conversation that can be uncomfortable. But we wanna make sure, particularly for those that are not part of our campus community, that we can regulate that in a content neutral way to make sure folks are protected and the ideas themselves can be discussed in a reasonable way.”

Click play above to hear the entire conversation with President Clif Smart, as part of our monthly program Engaging the Community.

Scott joined KSMU in November 2012. He had previously served five years as news director for KETR-FM, the public radio station in Commerce, Texas. A graduate of Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Scott enjoys producing human-interest stories, among other pieces that educate and engage the community. When not at work, he’s often taking part in outdoor activities, exploring new areas and restaurants, or staying up-to-date with the latest news and information. Scott was born and raised in Shenandoah, Iowa.