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New policy reaffirms NIU’s commitment to free speech

October 7, 2016

A new Freedom of Expression policy reaffirms Northern Illinois University’s commitment to free speech throughout campus.

“We believe in the ideal that inquiry and open debate are an essential part of discourse at any university and wanted to make that crystal clear,” said NIU President Doug Baker, who asked university administration to review and rework the policy that had been in place for three decades.

The existing policy was created with the intention of encouraging free speech. However, concern arouse that it may be having the opposite effect, said NIU Vice President and General Counsel Jerry Blakemore.  “It encouraged people to utilize designated free speech areas near the Holmes Student Center – and later the Convocation Center. Over time the perception developed that those were the only places where freedom of expression was allowed.”

The new policy erases that misperception, stating the university’s support for constitutionally supported speech in all outdoor areas of the campus. It also provides that the Board of Trustees room in Altgeld Hall (when not booked for other purposes) can be reserved for free speech activities. The policy applies to students, faculty and visitors to campus.

Implicit in the policy is that the university will not ban or interfere with any gathering or demonstration based upon the content of the message that organizers wish to share.

“By its very nature, free speech means that at times we may be confronted by ideas that we disagree with, or which we find uncomfortable. That does not mean that we have the right to squelch those messages,” said Blakemore. “But this policy does not extend any protections not already granted by the Constitution.”

For instance, he said, the policy prohibits things such as hate speech, genuine threats, harassment or defamation of specific individuals. It also stipulates that demonstrations cannot disrupt normal university business or damage university property.

While there is no requirement for individuals or groups to pre-register demonstrations, they are encouraged to do so at least five days in advance through Student Involvement and Leadership Development. Doing so is not a matter of securing permission, but rather allows the university to ensure that there are no conflicting events and address needs for security (if needed) or other details. There are no penalties or restrictions for those who do not pre-register, as long as the event does not veer into hate speech or other unprotected activities.

One thing that the policy does not change is the state of discussion in classrooms. “As always, faculty retain the right to shape the discourse that takes place in the classroom and to ensure that their teaching is not disrupted by inappropriate activities,” Executive Vice President and Provost Lisa Freeman said.

“NIU values all individuals and their rights,” said Baker. “This policy strives to make it clear that we encourage meaningful dialogue and a respectful exchange of ideas and opinions so that the voices of all of our students, faculty, staff and visitors can be acknowledged.”