The Huntsville Item, Huntsville, TX

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September 27, 2011

SHSU students plan more free speech protests

HUNTSVILLE — More protests are planned this week of a proposed social media policy at Sam Houston State University by students who charge it will infringe on their right to free speech.

Last week, SHSU faculty and students spoke out against the proposed policy, which would affect anyone who joins the university’s “social universe” of social media accounts, a network to be created by the SHSU Marketing and Communications Department.

The policy states that each social media account associated with the university should fill a role relevant to the university’s interests at large.

Under the proposed policy, the Marketing and Communications Department would reserve the right to access and manage these accounts, as well as the right to edit and delete content deemed inappropriate and shut down accounts if necessary.

Kris Ruiz, associate vice president of marketing and communication, is leading the effort to develop the social media policy and the campus social media network or “social universe.”

Ruiz said Monday that the policy has not been formally implemented and that she’s asked for feedback on its proposal from faculty and university groups that would be part of the network.

“It’s not implemented because right now we’re in what we call a soft launch,” Ruiz said. “So everything that is out there. We’re just fine tuning and making changes as we go. I know there have been articles in The Houstonian, and I’ve asked for feedback, but as of yet I haven’t received anything.”

Students, however, have been protesting the policy since last week.

Campus political organizations, including SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Young Democratic Socialists and College Republicans, coordinated a Facebook event to encourage students to exercise their First Amendment rights on a “Free Speech Wall” outside the Lee Drain Building last Friday.

The free-standing wall was covered with paper, and students were invited to write their thoughts on it.

“This is a university, a place for the free-flow of ideas to take place,” said Morgan Freeman, president of the SHSU Lovers of Liberty. “Anything that tries to put a stop to that free-flow of ideas is really acting in contrast to the purpose of a university.”

The tone of the event changed when students filled the wall with expletives and derogatory remarks about President Barack Obama and past presidents such as George W. Bush.

Friday afternoon, SHSU math professor Joe Kirk, who objected to the profane language written on the wall, attempted to have the wall removed.

But student organizations had received permission from the university to carry out the event, which meant the wall was not coming down unless it was determined by the University Police Department to be slanderous to the point of disorderly conduct.

Kirk went to his office but returned to the wall with a box cutter. He then announced to student protesters that he was exercising his free speech and cut out an expletive relating to Obama.

UPD was called to the scene, but no arrests were made. The incident is still under investigation, officials said.

The Item attempted to reach Kirk for comment by email Monday, but the professor did not answer respond.

Students were given the choice of putting up a new wall, censoring the “F-word” from the wall, or ending the protest entirely.

 “I told him it was a free speech wall and if I censored it then it wouldn’t be a free speech wall,” Freeman said.

Ultimately, SHSU removed the wall because it was filled with too much profanity to be censored.

Students are not the only ones concerned about the proposed social media policy. SHSU faculty members also have expressed reservations.

In the Sept. 15 edition of The Houstonian, Faculty Senate University Affairs committee Chairman Paul Loeffler said the proposed policy was “totally inappropriate” and that the marketing department was overreaching.

“It affects and involves student, faculty and other university members,” Loeffler said. “It should go through the Faculty Senate, Student Government Association and the Academic Affairs Council.”

In response, student political organizations plan more protests this week — one in the Mall Area of the campus Wednesday and another with a “censorship wall” Thursday.

The censorship wall is intended to poke fun at the university for the violations of free speech students believe will be the result of the proposed social media policy.

“We want to show the reality of what censored speech really is,” Freeman added. “The policy basically gives the university free reign over all of our content. and there is no accountability in the policy either. So, besides the fact that they want to come in and delete everything, there is no official process for how they do it.”

Ruiz will attend the SHSU Faculty Senate on Thursday to receive feedback regarding the proposed policy.

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