Survey shows limited free speech at CSUS

Sean Keister

A recent survey found Sacramento State to be among the most restrictive four-year universities in the nation in terms of limiting the free speech of students.

In the report “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011,” conducted by a national free speech advocacy organization, Sac State was ranked along with 236 other colleges considered major public universities, the top 100 national universities and top 50 liberal arts colleges, according to the U.S. News and World Report.

In its ranking, each school was assigned either a green, yellow or red light based on the extent in which its administrators limited free speech on campus.

Sac State received the red-light ranking along with Chico State, UC Santa Cruz and UC Davis, while other California universities such as UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley received a yellow light.

Kimo Ah Yun, the new department chair of communication studies, was surprised by the study and said he did not see the campus as a place where he has seen substantial limitations on free speech.

Sac State confines demonstrations of free speech to the area in front of the University Library, according to Sac State policies.

Ah Yun said he thinks free speech is vital because it gives people the right to express opinions without concern for retribution, and he believes Sac State is a place where everyone can openly share ideas.

“It is important to expose students to variety of ideas, especially counter-culture ideas,” Ah Yun said. “It becomes a place where students and faculty can take ideas they hear, and take them and discuss them in the classroom.”

A university can earn a red light by having a policy that clearly and substantially limits freedom of speech or that bars public access to its speech policies and the web.

A campus earns a yellow light if its policies could be interpreted in some ways to compromise protected speech or restricting certain types of free speech, with a green light meaning that its policies are very welcoming to all forms of expression.

Ah Yun said he supports expansion of locations available for free speech on campus, but does not think there is a problem with the space that already exists.

“It draws a greater cross-section of students,” Ah Yun said.

He said it would be more confining if instead of the library the space was in a more closed-off part of campus, like if the administrators limited student demonstrations in a less noticeable place such as in front of the theatre.

Of 390 schools in the survey, 67 percent received a red light, 27 percent a yellow light, 3 percent obtained a green light, and the final 3 percent did not get a rating because they were private universities that claimed to elevate certain values above a commitment to free speech for students.

According to the survey, 64 percent of the 33 California university campuses received a red light.

Sac State alumnus Jennon Valentine-Martinez said he did not realize how limiting the university was on this issue.

“We have First Amendment rights, as long as it’s not violating federal law I don’t see it as a problem,” Ah Yun said.

While there is the designated spot for expression of opinion in front of the library, the fact that other schools in the state have more freedom was telling to Valentine-Martinez.

“Anyone can give their opinion, and if they want they should be able to do so wherever,” Ah Yun said.

Freshman engineering major Kayla Beal said she is unsure about the extent of free speech on campus. She said it depends on what it is about.

“Some people could offend other people,” Beal said.

Also critical, is not just where protesting is conducted, but exactly how it is expressed.

Ah Yun said that while free speech is valuable it does have its limits.

“If there is a physical effect from something violent that is said, then absolutely there should be restrictions,” Ah Yun said.

Valentine-Martinez said there should not be a limit on what students can and cannot say as long as it is not threatening in nature.

“You can’t just say “I’m going to blow up the university,'” Valentine-Martinez said.

Beal said she is for expanding areas that would allow free speech.

“It is important that everyone should get an opportunity,” Beal said.

For many students, the issue comes down to how freedom of speech is conducted.

“It’s being able to express yourself in a way that’s not threatening or harassing, but allowing criticism to occur in a responsible dialogue,” Valentine-Martinez said.

Sean Keister can be reached at [email protected]