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October 24, 2010

RSU official gone after student rights controversy

CLAREMORE — A Rogers State University administrator has lost her job following a student rights dispute that grabbed the attention of a national advocacy group.

The New York-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education accused Student Activities Coordinator Lynn Brown of violating students’ speech rights consistently after she was hired in June. A university official confirmed Friday that Brown left RSU Tuesday.

“All I can say is that she no longer works for the university,” said Tobie Titsworth, vice president for student affairs. “We can’t comment on personnel matters.”

He would not say if Brown was forced to leave or if her departure was connected to the allegation.

Brown came under fire after student Renee Morse-Heenan told the advocacy group that RSU’s student activities office was blocking her attempts to create a student rights organization and refusing to let her distribute fliers about the organization.

RSU’s code of conduct specifically allows students to distribute fliers without censorship.

“Here we had a student who wanted to found a student rights organization and was running into problems,” said Adam Kissel, vice president of programs for FIRE. “We support students for advocating student rights on campus. That student and others were facing unacceptable difficulties.”

In a letter to RSU President Larry Rice dated Aug. 30, Kissel said the restrictions against Morse-Heenan were unconstitutional and violated RSU’s own policies.

He quoted emails sent to Larry Green, the faculty advisor of Morse-Heenan’s organization, in which Brown allegedly claimed RSU had the right to limit students’ speech and the distribution of their fliers. Brown said in one email she would not allow Morse-Heenan’s fliers because they advertised that students have a right to post fliers on campus, which Brown claimed was wrong.

Kissel said Brown’s rationale was not enforceable because a court ruling protects false statements under the freedom of speech. He also quoted RSU’s student handbook, which says, “A student has the right to establish and/or disseminate publications free from any censorship or other official action controlling editorial policy on content.”

FIRE had determined Morse-Heenan was following RSU’s rules for establishing a student organization, Kissel said Friday.

“It looked like Renee had been doing everything she could,” he said. “She got information from Ms. Brown that suggested that the process (of the student activities office) might violate freedom of association of student groups as well as their freedom of expression.”

RSU’s student government association approved the Organization for Advocating the Rights of Students this month, but FIRE said in an online article Oct. 12 that it doesn’t ease all concerns — although the group praised RSU for acting so quickly after the letter to Rice.

The group criticized the university for allowing the student government association to vote on whether new student organizations should be recognized in the SGA. If organizations meet basic requirements, like establishing membership and leadership, the SGA should have no choice but to accept them, FIRE said.

“The possibility remains that other groups could fall victim to viewpoint discrimination, especially if (SGA) officials aren’t clear on the criteria required for recognizing student organizations,” FIRE said.

The group also said the university should not seek to control student organizations’ accounts on Facebook, Twitter or other social media websites.

According to FIRE and Morse-Heenan, Brown told Morse-Heenan in an email that RSU prefers to let the student affairs office control organizations’ social media accounts in order to limit duplicate accounts and ensure that control of an account does not fall to a student who has left the university.

Kissel claimed in his letter to Rice that a court decision in 2003 prohibits that kind of “cybergriping,” and said it is not in RSU’s authority to limit student organizations’ use of social media.

Sources inside RSU’s student government said Brown regularly attempted to limit student government’s power and created a hostile environment for its leaders. The situation changed only after FIRE intervened, the sources said.

Kissel would not say whether he feels Brown’s departure will benefit RSU.

“Whether an administrator who gets first amendment rights wrong consistently deserves to be fired, that’s not something I’m prepared to say,” he said. “Sometimes a person just needs to be corrected and whether someone needs to be fired is the decision of the university.”

Adrean Shelly, president of RSU’s SGA, said she could not comment on Brown’s departure but promised the SGA will remain a positive force on campus.

“I believe SGA will keep on going forward and moving on and just keep doing great things for the students,” she said.

Morse-Heenan was not available to comment extensively, but confirmed FIRE’s reports.

Kissel said his organization has been advocating student rights for 11 years and has influenced policy changes in universities like Yale, Texas Tech and Delaware.

“We are completely non-partisan,” he said. “Many students don’t understand their first amendment rights and many students who exercise their first amendment rights are investigated and even punished.”

He said universities that limit freedom of speech are “teaching students a wrong message.” 

FIRE's report on the issue:

FIRE's letter to RSU President Larry Rice:

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