For the better part of a week now, the University of Missouri has seemed a world apart. But recent events have confirmed the university is a lot like the rest of Missouri in this respect: it is catastrophically misgoverned.
Following days of turmoil on campus, during which national news outlets captured video of university administrators and faculty physically threatening students who attempted to report on the unfolding events, the university police department Tuesday night issued a bulletin asking students and faculty to report “hateful and/or hurtful speech” to the police. Yes, the police. As of Tuesday night, the campus of this taxpayer-funded university has become a First Amendment-free zone.
Which prompts this question: Who exactly is in charge at the University of Missouri? And what are they doing with our tax dollars?
Mizzou Employees Cannot Attack Free Speech
I have been privileged to teach constitutional law at Mizzou. I cherish our rights as Americans to petition government for the redress of grievances. As an attorney, I have made a career out of defending those denied their rights by the heavy hand of government. I am proud that we live in a nation where citizens can assemble to express their political views, of whatever sort, without fear of reprisal.
But let’s get one or two things straight. The First Amendment protects not only the right to assemble, but also the right to speak. It prohibits government officials from punishing speech the government deems “hurtful” or offensive. What’s more, the University of Missouri is a taxpayer-funded institution. That means university law enforcement personnel are government officials. University administrators are too. For them to deploy—or even threaten—the police power against “offensive” speech is shocking, and probably unconstitutional.
That such a policy could be issued at all is a sign of just how badly the university is governed, and how thoroughly it has come to share the dysfunction of our state government. For months, top administrators have warred among themselves, each attempting to curry favor with state politicians at the other’s expense. The chancellor went so far as to hire a personal lobbyist to press his interests with the Jefferson City political establishment. Not surprisingly, state politicos have treated the university like a political plaything.
Meanwhile, the University Board of Curators has said nary a word about the anti-speech incidents on campus perpetrated by its own administrators or the university’s anti-speech policing.
Protect Free Speech Again
Enough. The time has come for accountability. The curators should immediately rescind the anti-speech police policy—but not before they ascertain who, precisely, authorized it in the first place. Administrators and faculty who threatened students for exercising their First Amendment rights should be disciplined.
Solving the problems at Mizzou may seem complicated, but parts of it are easy. Much of this has been, at its best, a call for basic human rights. That’s a good touchstone as we move forward. And the single best enunciation of human rights is the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution. Let’s not let emotion or political correctness or cronyism carry us away from those basic truths in the First Amendment. Equality is rooted in equal freedom. And we cannot take freedom from one to secure it for another.