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How far do First Amendment rights extend at colleges and universities?

Ari Cohn, a senior program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Ari Cohn, a senior program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The saga of Melissa Click is one so widely-known that it is sure to be recorded in the great books of higher ed lore. Click, in the fall of 2015, became famous for “calling for some muscle” to keep a reporter from entering a “media-free” zone on public property where Mizzou’s Concerned Student 1950 protesters were encamped. As a writer in The Atlantic pointed out, “If the case of Melissa Click were a law professor’s hypothetical, it’d be a great one.”

Melissa Click
Credit KBIA - Provided by Melissa Click
Melissa Click

How far does free speech, freedom of the press and due process extend on college campuses? Who is privileged in such complicated situations as that of Melissa Click and the photographer who wanted to exercise freedom of the press? 

On Wednesday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” host Don Marsh was joined by Ari Cohn, a senior program officer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-profit foundation that concerns itself with “freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience.”  Among topics of discussion was the situation involving Melissa Click, trigger warnings, free-speech zones on college campuses, among other things.

“The video speaks for itself, but Melissa Click, like any other professor at the University of Missouri, also deserves those procedural protections in the faculty handbook, in the principles of shared governance,” Cohn said. “The American Association of University Professors has expressed concerns that her rights were violated and if that is the case, we have concerns about that as well.”

Cohn said that FIRE, while not associated with Click’s case, has concerns about the legislature’s involvement in university procedure as well.

“The actions that she took, some say they were justified, some say that they were not, that’s something for the prosecutor to determine and for the academic community to determine if there was misconduct and if they want that to be part of the university,” said Cohn.

Cohn said the First Amendment issue of greater concern on campuses today is what The Atlantic called “The Coddling of the American Mind.

"What we're seeing more so than the old-school, administrative desire for peace and quiet, are students demanding to be free from offense,” Cohn said.

When teachers and administrators respond to students who do not like certain language by shutting down that language, “we're teaching students that it is easier to silence your opponent than refuting and debating them,” Cohn continued.

In Cohn’s opinion, this type of thinking is exemplified by the overuse of trigger warnings in the classroom to denote potentially worrisome, painful or derogatory material. Cohn said FIRE is seeing an increased push for trigger warnings from students and that may not be a good thing.

"The college classroom is the single safest place to explore uncomfortable and, sometimes, dangerous ideas."

“Trigger warnings, when used properly, don’t come from a bad place,” he said. “They come from a place to help people with PTSD, severe issues, but when it comes down to it, the trigger warnings we see today are so broad that they’re being used as a way to avoid ideas. That’s where it gets dangerous. In reality, the college classroom is the single safest place to explore uncomfortable and, sometimes, dangerous ideas.”

Cohn said the hallmark of higher education is free thought and discussion on college campuses. Although some colleges are trying to preserve free speech on campus by instituting “free-speech zones,” places that students can go to say whatever they want, Cohn believes this is not enough.

“The irony of free speech zones is that they are generally small and out of the way,” Cohn said. “By virtue of their existence, they designate the rest of a campus as a place you can’t speak your mind. We’ve had free speech zones in small gazebos, muddy patches, a basketball court…to declare that a large majority, well over 99.5% of a campus, is not a free speech zone violates that fundamental value of free thought and inquiry that college and universities stand for.”

In July, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon signed a law banning such zones.

Related Event

What: Free Speech and Inclusion - Friend or Foe?
When: Wednesday, March 16 from 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.
Where: Anheuser-Busch Leadership Room, Spellmann Center on the St. Charles Campus of Lindenwood University, John Weber Dr, St Charles, MO 63301

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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