K-State tells students they have 'no right to not be offended'

Bucking the free-speech zone trend, Kansas State University is telling students they are legally permitted to demonstrate or protest anywhere they want for any cause they want.

“The whole campus is a free speech area,” the K-State Office of General Counsel states in its October legal briefing, noting that as a public university, the school cannot and will not require anyone to register with the university prior to having a public demonstration or protest.

Even when the speech in question is “controversial or offending,” such as a speaker shouting derogatory remarks at passersby, the school’s attorneys declare emphatically that only behaviors rising to the level of criminality are subject to intervention.

“As a general rule, there is no right to not be offended,” they point out, arguing that “if the government started shutting down speech that is offensive to some, it would end up shutting down all speech, because virtually everything can be offensive to some.”

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“As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in 1989 in Texas v. Johnson: ‘If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because it finds it offensive or disagreeable,’” the briefing notes.

“Everyone has their First Amendment rights so we’ve got to protect their rights whether we’re for or against the protest,” Lt. Bradli Millington, coordinator for support services at the K-State Police Department, told The Kansas State Collegian.

In fact, not only does the legal briefing affirm unequivocally that offensive speech is legally protected, the document even states that controversial remarks and robust debate “are expected and valued” on college campuses in our society, and are deserving of special protection because unpopular viewpoints are the most likely to be targeted for censorship.

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Many public colleges and universities, however, currently take the opposite approach, imposing burdensome requirements on public demonstrations and/or restricting expressive activities to “free speech zones” that are often small in size and tucked away far from areas with heavy foot traffic.

Just recently, Middlesex County College kicked a free speech activist off campus because he did not receive prior approval to hand out pocket Constitutions and display a “free speech board” with messages written by students, and last month another conservative activist was even erroneously informed by Miami Dade College police that she was on “private property” as they evicted her from the public campus.

The phenomenon also affects some private schools, such as DePaul University, where students were told they could not put up signs that say “unborn lives matter” because the message represents “bigotry...under the cover of free speech.”

Other private institutions, however, have taken similar positions to the one articulated by K-State, most notably the University of Chicago, which has been lauded by First Amendment advocates as a national role model for its “Chicago Statement” establishing robust speech protections on campus, despite the lack of a legal obligation to do so.

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