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Kansas Faculty Senate presidents release statement on free expression

The Council of Faculty Senate Presidents, consisting of members from every four-year public university in Kansas, has released a joint statement about the commitment to free expression on their campuses. 

The statement, distributed primarily among faculty members, briefly reviews the historical purpose of universities and why free expression related to the First Amendment is important to maintain. According to Cole Shewmake, the president of the Faculty Senate at Pittsburg State, there was not one specific incident that prompted the statement. 

“The Kansas Board of Regents asked various groups to address free expression,” Shewmake said. “The result Council of Faculty Senate Presidents statement was the result… I do not believe there was one specific incident that sparked the statement.” 

The statement was released in December although more recently many politicians and lawmakers have raised free speech and free expression concerns after former President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter, despite the scenario in question having nothing to do with the First Amendment because Twitter is a private company and not a government entity. 

“Just like anything, some individuals will have an accurate understanding of instances where and how free expression applies and there will be individuals that do not have a complete understanding of it,” Shewmake said. “This is one reason the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents felt it was a relevant topic to address.” 

The statement cites the university’s historical purpose as a place to encourage critical thinking. 

“The historical purpose of universities is to engage students and the greater academic community to empower them to confront, challenge, evaluate, and think critically about new ideas and how they may be used to solve age-old questions,” the statement said. “Mere exposure to ideas does not serve that mission. When institutions support and encourage full and open discourse and the robust, respectful exchange of ideas and perspectives, students and the academic community at large feel more open about questioning assumptions, testing beliefs, and refining knowledge.” 

Free expression includes several rights granted by the Constitution. These include the freedom of speech, the freedom of press, the freedom of religion, the freedom to petition and freedom of assembly. These rights relate to the relationship between the government and its citizens. They do not apply between a private entity and a citizen. Additionally, not all forms of speech are protected under the First Amendment. Hate speech and speech intended to incite panic or violence are not protected forms of speech. A famous example involves yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theatre if there is no fire. That would not be considered free expression under the First Amendment. 

The statement was also about reassuring students in the state of Kansas that their First Amendment rights will be protected on college campuses. 

“Our institutions’ commitment to the First Amendment is essential for the protection of freedom of expression on our campuses,” the statement said. “At the same time, the Council of Faculty Senate Presidents reaffirms its commitment to protect students from hostile educational environments that adversely affect students’ educational opportunities. A hostile educational environment is incompatible with a university’s educational mission. Thus, the protection of free expression on our campuses is coextensive and coterminous with the First Amendment.”    

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