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Miami Senate working session accepts feedback on campus free speech policy

On Monday, Jan. 30, Miami University faculty met over Zoom for a Senate working session — an optional meeting that goes in-depth over a certain topic — to discuss additions to Miami’s campus free speech policy.

The session was moderated by Nathan French, a university senator and professor. Amy Shoemaker, vice president and general counsel, and Dana Cox, associate provost for faculty affairs, co-hosted the session.

The current policy reads, “The University is committed to maintaining a campus as a marketplace of ideas for all students and all faculty in which the free exchange of ideas is not to be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the institution's community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed.”

The working session was hosted to discuss a proposed addition to the policy, which would include a procedure for students or faculty members to submit complaints that their speech rights have been violated by a university employee. The policy previously had no procedure for investigating complaints.

According to the draft for the procedure, the complaints will be filed through EthicsPoint. The Office of General Counsel will determine if a complaint has enough information to investigate an alleged violation. Anonymous complaints will not be investigated.

The new policy would also add a standing Hearing Committee that consists of three faculty and three other staff appointed by the provost. A Hearing Committee Administrator will also be designated by the provost and will appoint committee investigators and Hearing Panel members to cases. Three Hearing Committee members will make up each Hearing Panel and listen to the investigation before determining an outcome for the case.

“There are lots of spaces in which a person might feel that their right to freedom of expression could be impinged upon in a university campus,” Shoemaker said. “This is intended to address that full panoply of possibilities through this ability to file a complaint.”

While the meeting primarily focused on questions about how this will work in relation to classes, Shoemaker shared that the policy also affects other areas of campus, such as residence halls.

“We can’t police for content where we provided an opportunity for freedom of expression,” Shoemaker said. “If somebody were … to post a confederate flag on their door, that’s content-based, and even though it’s incredibly offensive to a number of individuals … we can’t police for content.”

During the meeting, professors raised concerns about the bill. One professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies worried the bill might affect what she can teach in class.

“This bill does not change Miami’s values in any way,” Cox said. “The university isn’t going to change their perspective on academic freedom as a result of this bill. The university is not going to change our curriculum in response to a student grievance.”

Other professors referenced a case from 2022 where an adjunct professor at Hamline University showed students an image of the Prophet Muhammad. The professor, Erika López Prater, warned students that the image would be shown, but a student reported the incident as Islamaphobic. López Prater’s contract was not renewed for the next semester.

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The proposed bill doesn’t have a specific set of outcomes for a hearing, leaving the decision to the panel. Multiple attendees raised concerns about this and worried that the decisions could lead to the firing of non-tenured professors.

“I think it is really important, even if this isn’t used a lot, to get a clear policy on how decisions are made by the panel,” Kevin Reuning, an assistant professor of political science, wrote in the Zoom chat. “This policy can be weaponized by bad faith actors, either by flooding it or by going after particular faculty or staff. Without putting rules/restrictions on it, I think we make that potential problem worse.”

The University Senate will vote on the bill at a future meeting after it has been revised.