On the face of it, the University of Minnesota’s Morris campus says it’s merely trying to promote tolerance, respect and civility by regulating what kind of posters can be displayed in dorm hallways.

But a civil liberties group has singled out the school’s policy as one of the worst examples of a national trend threatening the right to free speech on public campuses.

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based watchdog group, blasted more than 100 public colleges and universities for failing to address what it calls unconstitutional speech codes.

The list included two in Minnesota: the U’s Morris campus and Winona State University.

All the schools earned FIRE’s lowest, or “red light,” rating for a policy that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

This week, a Morris spokeswoman said the campus already has changed its policy, which had been criticized for prohibiting “offensive” speech and postings in public areas.

And Winona State, too, stated that it has eliminated the wording that drew FIRE’s criticism. Last year, it dropped the prohibition against “hostile or inappropriate language” on campus.

FIRE, for its part, praised Winona for the revisions, but said the two schools’ policies are still troubling. One reason: They both require students to get advance approval before posting signs in public areas of residence halls.

At Morris, the housing policy says that all such signs “must be reviewed by a Residential Life staff member.” And Winona warns students living in dorms that “All unapproved signs will be taken down.”

Azhar Majeed, who heads FIRE’s speech code monitoring program, says these kinds of policies on public campuses undermine their legal obligation to protect free expression.

“Any time you have this kind of a broad regulation in place, there’s of course going to be a chilling effect on free speech,” he said. “We’ve seen a lot of schools sort of pay lip service to free speech … but then they fail to follow up on that in terms of their policies and practices.”

At Morris, a spokeswoman said the university will review FIRE’s latest letter, which arrived last week.

“We don’t know what [the concern] is exactly,” said Melissa Vangsness, “but we will look at it.”

Winona, meanwhile, issued a statement saying that it reviews its policies regularly and that “we listen to any concerns that are raised.”

Majeed says that dozens of colleges have worked with FIRE to revise their policies since the group first starting raising concerns about speech codes.

But on many campuses, he notes, the impulse to restrict speech isn’t just coming from school officials.

“Students themselves seem to be the ones oftentimes calling for censorship or calling for a very hypersensitive approach to campus expression,” he said. And that, he added, is “a discouraging trend.”

 

maura.lerner@startribune.com