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November 13, 2010

Student whistleblower keeps testing limits

CLAREMORE — The Rogers State University student who took her first amendment dispute to a national student rights group says RSU students are largely unaware of their rights or afraid to assert them to administrators.

Because of views like that, Renee Morse-Heenan says she can draw up a sizable list of students she calls “Renee haters.”

She admits it. She’s abrasive. She gets in the way. She’s opinionated.

And she’s not done yet.

The student who turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education over complaints about former student activities coordinator Lynn Brown now coordinates RSU’s first student rights organization — at least until December, when she graduates with an unlikely degree in Biology.

“People tell me I should be a political science major,” she said. “I don’t know.”

As a student rights advocate, Morse-Heenan alerted FIRE of potential speech rights violations at RSU. Just over three months after the advocacy group sent a letter to RSU President Larry Rice, Brown was gone.

Now, her group — the Organization for Advocating the Rights of Students — is teaching students how to stand up for themselves legally. Beyond that, it’s helping students communicate concerns to administrators.

Morse-Heenan has already worked with the university’s student affairs office to help a student in a wheel chair access classes in the top floor of a building.

And her organization plans a sort of organized heist, where members take books or notepads from students — temporarily, if consented — and hand them a paper explaining their rights. The goal is to teach students what to say when their rights are taken away.

That’s why Morse-Heenan created the organization in the first place.

“Students don’t really think they have rights,” Morse-Heenan said. “But it’s almost like students have more rights than anyone at the bottom of the hill.”

She feels RSU students live in a “culture of fear” — fear of doing something controversial, being censored by the administration or getting the runaround from administrators — and she wants to change it.

It’s not an RSU-specific criticism. She said it’s a perception that exists among college students everywhere.

“As a student, you don’t know where the line is. You don’t know what you can or can’t do,” she said. “I’m sick of students being afraid. They are the consumer of the product, which is education.”

Her organization sets out to raise students’ awareness of what they can and can’t do, backed up judge’s opinions in first amendment cases and materials from groups like FIRE.

“RSU students or any students automatically assume that if you put the word code on it or policy, that’s the bottom line, and it’s not,” she said. “Students are afraid to ask proof about policy because professors won’t know. And they’re afraid student affairs will give them the runaround.”

She hopes also to educate administrators on student rights, if the need arises.

“I think they mean well, administration, but they need to be educated and that goes for administrators at all universities,” Morse-Heenan said.

Her organization often deals with more simplistic questions from students. Many want to know if professors can truly enforce cell phone policies in classrooms. The answer is yes.

“Individual professors can determine what is disruptive in the classroom. If a cell phone is distracting a professor, it’s being disruptive and you have to put it away,” Morse-Heenan said.

That may not be a controversial opinion, but her decision to go to FIRE was.

And it continues to make things hard on her.

She says she has been harassed by people using anonymous Facebook accounts for not keeping things in-house.

“Everyone feels like they live in a little RSU cocoon — a Camelot on the Hill cocoon,” she said. “People don’t like change.”

She says she understands people involved with RSU are protective of their community.

“But I’m very protective of my community, too,” she said. “That’s why I’m defending students’ rights.”

Without FIRE’s involvement, she doesn’t believe anything would have changed. Now that Brown is gone, she hopes the university’s collective guard is eased. She makes it a point to say that other administrators were not holding her organization back — just Brown.

Morse-Heenan alleges that Brown, whose job involved helping student government and organizations, limited the power of student leaders and bullied some so much that their grades suffered from stress and fatigue.

When Brown blocked Morse-Heenan’s attempts to create and advertise her organization, Morse-Heenan turned to FIRE.

In an email obtained by the advocacy group, Brown said she denied Morse-Heenan’s request to put up fliers because they wrongly claimed that students had the right to assemble and post bulletins. RSU’s student handbook allows both activities.

She said in another email that RSU had the right to limit students’ speech rights, a claim that especially caught FIRE’s attention.

While administrators would not say whether Brown was fired, Morse-Heenan wishes they would.

“I want to think she was fired for refusing to work with the students, and that’s part of the job,” she said. “They should say she was fired for not sharing the views of the university.”

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