The University of Connecticut believes a new bill requiring public institutions of higher education to adopt a freedom of expression policy by Jan. 1, 2024, is “not necessary.”
During a Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee public hearing on Feb. 16, UConn Provost Anne D’Alleva testified, “Constitutional protections for free speech and expression apply to university environments just as they do elsewhere,” adding that the bill “not be intended to provide rights or restrictions beyond those already afforded by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
The bill’s purpose is to protect “freedom of expression on campus including when the ideas or opinions expressed are disagreeable or offensive.” Additionally, the proposed legislation calls for an “allowance for protest or demonstration” on campus — if it does not “substantially or materially interfere with the institution’s function or ability of others to engage in or listen to an expressive activity” — as well as designating public areas on campus as “public forums.”
UConn believes the institution already complies with protecting freedom of expression on its campuses across the state. In 2017, the university issued a Report of the Task Force on Free Speech and Civility, reaffirming its commitment to respect and protect community members’ ability to “share opinions and ideas without interference to the fullest extent permitted under law,” which extends to “expression, ideas, or discussion that some members of the University community may believe wrong or even repugnant.”
However, in 2022 the Foundation of Individuals Rights in Education (FIRE), a non-partisan organization that works to protect the civil liberties of individuals in educational settings, ranked UConn 105 — out of the 203 schools surveyed — in their annual “College Free Speech Ranking” report.
According to the report, UConn ranks 54th in Comfort Expressing Ideas; 179th in Tolerance for Speakers; 175th in Disruptive Conduct; 114th in Administrative Support; and 48th in Openness. All of this earned the university of ‘yellow’ designation, expressing concern for its adherence to freedom of expression. Yet, only several years prior, FIRE ranked UConn as one of the ‘10 Worst Colleges for Free Speech’ in 2020.
The university, meanwhile, receives “among the highest levels of state government funding than nearly every other public university in the nation,” according to a Feb. 15 statement issued by Gov. Ned Lamont. In his recent budget proposal, UConn aims to gain the “largest block grant ever proposed” in state history.
Yet UConn representatives are not satisfied with President Radenka Maric writing in UConn Today, “Unfortunately, the appropriations proposed for UConn and UConn Health fall far short of what is necessary to adequately fund the university, carry out our critical public health mission most effectively, and fully cover the sizable costs the state seeks to pass along to us.”
The university relies on state funding for nearly 25% of its operating funding annually and is proposed to receive $842.7 million and $821.1 million for FY2024 and FY2025, respectively. However, UConn requested more than $1 billion for those years.
Regardless of the budgetary complaints, UConn still receives a substantial portion of taxpayer dollars; therefore, a bill requiring solidifying free speech protections at a public university should be a paramount issue, considering the average-to-poor grades it earns in the field.