As protests flare on campuses nationwide, the University of Maine System is moving forward with a new free speech policy that affirms constitutionally protected speech, calls for civility and gives the university room to prohibit speech if it crosses into harassment or threats.

“The timing is critically important,” system trustee chairman Sam Collins said Wednesday, referring to violent protests that broke out days ago at Middlebury College in Vermont, after students shouted down a controversial speaker. Last month, riots broke out at University of California Berkeley in connection with a speech by a provocateur and conservative activist.

Closer to home, the University of Southern Maine recently hosted a speaker on immigration that drew protesters, but remained civil.

Collins and other members of the UMS trustees’ executive committee met Wednesday to discuss the new policy, saying it would help the system navigate sensitive free speech issues, while making clear that students do not have the right to shout down a speaker.

“… (D)emands for civility and mutual respect will not be used to justify restricting the discussion or expression of ideas or speech that may be disagreeable or even offensive to some members of the University community,” the policy reads in part. “Free speech is not absolute, and one person’s claim to exercise his or her right to free speech may not be used to deny another person’s right to free speech.”

The policy defends constitutionally protected speech, and reads: “There shall be no restriction at any System institutions on these fundamental rights, although the University may prohibit speech that violates the law, defames specific individuals, genuinely threatens or harasses others, or violates privacy or confidentiality requirements or interests.”

The policy is based in part on the findings of the University of Chicago Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, and the model language suggested by that committee.

“This is a very positive thing,” said Samantha Harris, a vice president at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, an organization that defends student and faculty rights on campus and urged campuses to adopt the Chicago language. “It’s heartening to see a public institution affirm their beliefs.”

Seventeen colleges have adopted the Chicago language so far, Harris said.

The new policy will be voted on by the full board of trustees at its April meeting.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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