Kansas State University ranks among the top colleges for free speech, according to an annual survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. The First Amendment watchdog rated universities and colleges based on an analysis of their written policies.

For several years in a row, K-State earned a “green light” from the organization, which means K-State’s policies do not seriously imperil free speech. The study concluded that 89% of the schools analyzed maintain policies that restrict free speech. More than 21% earned a “red light,” meaning their policies substantially restrict speech, according to the analysis.

Founded in 1999, FIRE exposes liberal university policies and practices “…to public criticism and scrutiny. The hope is for the public to recognize that violations of basic rights that occur on college campuses every day.

“These policies have real-world consequences. Students and professors around the country face punishment for speech that is clearly protected by the First Amendment or a school’s free speech promises,” Laura Beltz, author of the report and a senior program officer for policy reform at FIRE.

Josh Willis is a K-State student and former president and current secretary of the Kansas State University College Republicans. He hasn’t had any negative speech experiences on the university’s Manhattan campus. 

“Overall, it’s a good campus for free speech,” Willis said. “A lot of students come from small towns in Kansas or have agriculture backgrounds, so even though the K-State administration has kind of shifted to give brownie points to social justice, it’s still a better campus for free speech.”

KU earns a yellow light

Things are different 85 miles west of Manhattan at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  KU received a yellow light in the FIRE report, indicating it “maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while clearly restricting freedom of speech, restrict relatively narrow categories of speech.”

Paige Harding is a senior at KU and the president of KU College Republicans. She said the Republican point-of-view often seems unwelcome on campus.

“Being a conservative on a college campus is death by a thousand cuts. It is exhausting and draining,” Harding said. “It is very hard.”

Some of the speech issues on campus go viral, like an incident last fall at a KU sorority. In October, a University of Kansas sorority member drew fire for a retweet. Student Kathryn Lauer retweeted conservative author and commentator Candace Owens, who said black lives matter is a racist movement. Owens is black. Lauer’s sorority ordered her to take diversity training and announced her social media posts would be monitored. Kappa Alpha Theta warned that its members would be held accountable for statements that others found offensive. 

Some of the ‘thousand cuts’ referenced by Harding don’t hit the airwaves but suggest to students that their conservative views don’t belong on campus. For instance, the university’s news service on December 21 highlights a new book that reveals “how racial resentment unites Trump voters.” A scholarly article within the new book, “The Heart of Whiteness” is written by a KU professor, who explains what unites white Trump voters.

“A lot of it is based on xenophobia and — to put it somewhat impolitely — racism,” Eric Hanley, a sociology professor, tells KU News Service.

Fort Hays State, Pittsburg State, Wichita State, and the University of Kansas also earned “yellow light” ratings from FIRE. Emporia State University was not rated.

Free speech controversies regularly erupt on Kansas campuses.

Wichita State University earlier this year disinvited Ivanka Trump, the President’s daughter and presidential adviser, as a virtual speaker for its tech school. Following the bad publicity, university president Jay Golden resigned after less than a year at the WSU helm.

Pittsburg State University grappled with a vaguely worded social media policy that threatened to prohibit faculty from posting to social media things that “impaired the harmony among co-workers” in 2014. 

Some KU Republicans fear that voicing an unpopular opinion could affect their grades, Harding said. 

Free speech in the classroom

“I remember being a freshman sitting in political science classes when my professors are going off on rants about Trump,  and thinking ‘how I am going to pass this class if I voice my beliefs?” she said. 

Her grades haven’t suffered, but a perceived animus toward conservative viewpoints could chill open discussion.

She recalls instances of other students getting in her face in Spanish and math classes as well.

“In every single class, even in my math classes, where politics should never come up, politics somehow has come up,” Harding said.

Despite its high rating from FIRE, K-State isn’t immune from free speech controversy. FIRE’s ratings only consider written codes related to speech, not their implementation. However, Beltz said FIRE was heartened to see that K-State did not take action against a student who made a controversial tweet about the death of George Floyd. Students protested and athletes threatened to boycott games unless K-State expelled the student.

KSU President Richard Myer, “rightly” responded, according to Beltz. In a statement, he said the answer to unpopular speech is not censorship, but more speech. 

“Let those who spew hatred and bigotry know that we have an even stronger voice,” Myers said.

Capitol events underscore importance of lawful protests, 1A rights

With many classes moving online last year, Harding said the election year wasn’t as bad as she feared. However, after rioters stormed the Capitol in Washington, Harding isn’t expecting things on campus to improve any time soon.

Beltz, the author of FIRE’s campus ratings, said the actions at the Capitol underscore the importance of FIRE’s mission.

“If anything, the events underscore the importance of lawful protest and speaking truth to power and of protecting our civil liberties,” Beltz said. 

Prospective college students should consider free speech rights

Prospective students should evaluate free speech policies when choosing a college because the free exchange of ideas is essential to an education.

“If the university they’re considering has a history of censoring student speech, suppressing student journalists, threatening the academic rights of professors, or burdening students organizations’ expressive conduct, students may not be able to attain the sort of education where they can learn from others with differing points of view there, in and out of the classroom,” she said.

It’s one reason FIRE ranks universities’ written free speech policies every year.

“If college students come to believe that the best answer to disfavored speech is government censorship, this view will be carried with them after they graduate and start their careers,” Beltz said. “This view will be carried with them after they graduate and start their careers and will worsen our society’s views of the importance of the First Amendment in general.”

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