ETSU Trustees vote to expand free speech policy, approve tuition and budget

Zach Vance • Apr 27, 2018 at 11:29 PM

To conform to a state law passed last year, East Tennessee State University’s Board of Trustees voted Friday to approve two measures that effectively expand free speech rights for students, staff, faculty and even community members on the university’s campus.

The first resolution, which revises the current policy, essentially replicates language used in the state statute and promotes the free exchange of ideas ETSU’s campus, even if those ideas are thought to be offensive or inappropriate by most members of the institution’s community.

“We had until Jan. 1, 2019, to adjust polices and effectuate procedures to implement the legislation. So today the board took action on the policy changes,” ETSU President Brian Noland said.

“To kind of encapsulate the changes, it provides broad protections for free speech for our students, faculty and staff. And then it provides the parameters that apply to community members as they're looking to come onto campus for events, protests, etc.”

Noland said the new policy shows that ETSU values free speech, adding that free speech is “important to who we are as a university.”

Among the 17 sections in the lengthy new policy, one states: “It is for ETSU students and faculty to make judgments about ideas for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress free speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

Another clause states that it is not the university’s duty to shield people from free speech, even if that speech is considered “offensive, unwise, immoral, indecent, disagreeable, conservative, liberal, traditional, radical, or wrong-headed.”

Faculty members are also protected from being punished for their speech in the classroom, unless their speech is deemed “not reasonably germane to the subject matter of the class as broadly construed” and the speech takes up “a substantial portion of classroom instruction.”

Under the policy, ETSU is prevented from rescinding invitations to speakers, invited by students or faculty, based on the anticipated reaction or opposition to the speech, while student organizations cannot be denied student activity fee funding from the university based on the viewpoints it advocates.

The second policy change, also unanimously approved, relates to facility usage for free speech. That policy defines who an “affiliated and non-affiliated” person is, expands the number of public speaking-areas on campus, and removes limits on when and where free-speech rights can be exercised.

Dr. Jeff Howard, dean of students, said the university has now expanded its number of public-speaking areas to include the Quad, a public square located just behind the Mini Dome near The Tree House. He also said the free speech utilization policy expands the hours those public-speaking spaces can be reserved, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“What it doesn't do is it does not limit affiliated persons, faculty, students or staff, to only using those spaces, or to only use those spaces during those allotted times,” Howard said.

“If those spaces are not reserved for an event or activity, any of our members of the community can use them, but they can also use other open spaces on the campus as they would like for any free speech activity.”

Howard said the policy change has been in development for multiple years and takes into account recent free-speech court cases and ETSU’s transition from the Tennessee Board of Regents to having its own governing board. 

Also on Friday, ETSU became the first public university or college in the state to approve its tuition rates and budget for next year.

Following the Finance and Administration Committee’s recommendation, the full board voted to approve a 2.91 percent increase in tuition for in-state undergraduate students and a $259.13 million budget for its main campus.

“Undergraduate tuition increases continue trending lowest in 20 years and remains in line with our peer institutions,” said B.J. King, chief financial officer for ETSU.

With the Board of Trustees’ first student trustee, Nathan Farnor, set to graduate in May, Noland nominated and the board confirmed Keyana Miller, president of the Student Government Association, as the next student representative.

Trustees also voted to establish a policy for selecting future student trustees, which will involve the SGA, president and Office of Student Affairs. 

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