Free frisbees, free t-shirts — and now free speech.

The evangelists, chalk drawings and handouts students may encounter while walking through the commons are allowed on campus because of the nonrestrictive speech regulations have gained JMU national attention.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education released its sixth annual list of “America’s Best Colleges for Free Speech” in a Sept. 5 Huffington Post article by FIRE president Greg Lukianoff. 

FIRE placed JMU among the top seven schools, along with William and Mary, The University of Mississippi, Mississippi State University, University of Tennessee (Knoxville), The University of Virginia and The University of Pennsylvania.

According to FIRE’s current speech code report, this year FIRE examined 392 colleges and universities nationwide and gave each a red-, yellow- or green-light rating.

Most of the schools examined fell within the lowest or red category, meaning that the institutions have at least one policy that restricts the free speech of its students or prevents the public from accessing their speech policies. 

Schools that received a yellow-light rating have policies that could potentially be interpreted as restrictive of free speech, such as one that prevents “verbal abuse.” Verbal abuse, according to FIRE’s annual report, could apply to unlawful and unprotected speech such as threats.

Lukianoff said that the top seven all received a green-light rating from FIRE, because their policies don’t threaten or constrict the students’ right to free speech on campus and that they have not censored speech in recent years. Lukianoff added that the top seven are listed in no particular order.

JMU’s green-light rating is only a recent achievement. In FIRE’s last three speech code reports, FIRE listed JMU as a yellow-light school. 

According to FIRE’s website, in 2009, JMU students began a campaign to reform several of JMU’s speech codes. 

For example, JMU previously had a policy that forbade students from posting material that wasn’t in “good taste,” according to the administration. This meant that any material mentioning alcohol or drugs was forbidden, even if it had a reformative or constructive purpose. JMU rewrote this policy in 2011 to only not allow the advertising and encouragement of alcohol and drug use.

Other Virginia schools like the Virginia Commonwealth University and The University of Richmond both received a low red-light rating. 

FIRE’s website listed Virginia Commonwealth University a red-light school due to a harassment policy that specifically forbids “humor and joke about sex denigrate men and women in general.”

In contrast, JMU’s harassment prohibits any offense that causes a hostile study or work environment. 

Joe Urgo, associate director of Madison Union, works regularly with both students and hosts of off-campus parties who may want to exercise their right to free speech on campus. For example, they can use the commons as a designated “free speech area” to deliver their message(s) to  the JMU community, whether that’s handing out fliers, drawing on the concrete, or surveying students.

Urgo explained that off-campus parties such as traveling evangelists and politicians are encouraged, but not required, to inform the university of their presence and purpose on campus. Urgo added that there aren’t any restrictions on the content of the message that anyone may deliver, unless students feel personally attacked or threatened. 

He said that since JMU is a public institution, its campus is public property and, by law, open to free speech. The university is more concerned with the safety of its students and protecting the consistency and status quo of campus life. 

For example, people are strictly forbidden to enter academic buildings or dorms, since this would disturb the class schedule and invading the students’ “homes.”

Urgo said JMU’s high ranking may be attributed to the general “open-minded” attitude of the student body.

“It’s because the students themselves are a little more active minded … maybe that’s part of the demographic of the students that come to schools,” Urgo said. 

In addition, Urgo mentioned that JMU’s speech policies are based on neutrality and tolerance.

The policy “is as neutral as possible — to allow and encourage free speech within the guidelines of the law,” Urgo said.

Mike Barko, president of local Christian ministry Communities 4 Christ, visits the JMU campus annually to evangelize to students. 

Barko, who has been coming to JMU for the past three years, said he appreciates the nonrestrictive speech policies as well as the openness of the students.

“The students are very receptive,” Barko said. “Even the ones that don’t agree — they’ll express that they don’t agree, but we don’t ever get into an argument.”

Carter Black, a freshman political science major, has spent some time on the commons with her fellow College Democrats in an effort to get JMU students to register to vote.

Black said that she appreciates the variety of opportunities to exercise free speech on campus, and like Barko, feels comfortable sharing her thoughts publicly.

“Being able to get with a group of college students and express your opinions is really cool and something that I’m really glad I’ve done,” Black said. “I would never feel uncomfortable with expressing my opinions.”

 

Contact IJ Chan at chanij@dukes.jmu.edu.