Here’s an actual threat to free speech at the University of Missouri

In the wake of recent protests at the University of Missouri, many Americans have expressed what I’ll (perhaps generously) call confusion over what, exactly, the First Amendment protects:

[iframe src=”http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/free_speech.png”]

The First Amendment is a guarantee that the government can’t restrict what you say or publish, with very few exceptions. It does not require people you disagree with to engage with you in discussion, especially when said people are exercising another one of their First Amendment rights: protesting.

This being the case, it’s rather frustrating to see our country engaged in a Very Serious Debate over whether the #ConcernedStudent1950 protestors were violating the media’s First Amendment rights by refusing to grant them interviews or access (especially since they are no longer refusing said access) while, at the same time, Missouri’s state government is actively trying to suppress research at the University.

From Al Jazeera America:

State Senator Kur Schaefer, via Wikimedia Commons

State Senator Kurt Schaefer, via Wikimedia Commons

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia, Missouri, who chairs the Missouri state senate’s interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life, sent a letter in late October to the University of Missouri calling [doctoral candidate Lindsay] Ruhr’s dissertation “a marketing aid for Planned Parenthood — one that is funded, in part or in whole, by taxpayer dollars,” according to a copy of the letter posted to HuffingtonPost.com. Schaefer called for the university to hand over documents regarding the project’s approval and said that, because the University of Missouri is a public university, it should not fund research that he said would promote elective abortions. Missouri law prohibits the use of public funds to promote non-life-saving abortions.

Ruhr, for her part, doesn’t sound like an activist. As she told Al Jazeera, “the whole point of my research is to understand how this policy (Missouri’s mandatory 72-hour waiting period for abortion) affects women. Whether this policy is having a harmful or beneficial effect, we don’t know.”

Just because a student is completing research for her dissertation in the School of Social Work at Planned Parenthood does not mean that she is actually an activist misusing public funds. Furthermore, according to Ruhr, the funding for her research isn’t even coming from the university! So Schaefer’s only argument — that she’s violating Missouri’s law prohibiting the use of public funds to promote abortions — would fail even if he could show that Ruhr had a political agenda.

Of course, this is only the most recent time a Republican elected official has tried to block academic research for political purposes. Republicans at multiple levels of government have repeatedly tried to intimidate and silence climate scientists over the prospect of having those scientists show that the planet is, in fact, getting much, much warmer. In Congress, House Republicans have successfully prohibited the Center for Disease Control from studying gun violence as a public health issue — or at all, for that mater.

These open affronts to the very concept of academic freedom — a subset of free speech — are threats to First Amendment protections. A group of students who feel that their campus culture is openly racist, and has been for some time, and that their school’s administration has willfully failed to take steps to change that fact, pose no such threat.

Protestors get to engage with citizens who disagree with them on their own terms. Governments don’t. If you’re looking for threats to free speech at the University of Missouri, look up to the state government, not down at activists on the ground.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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