April 20, 2015: Protesting for migrant farm workers

Protesters wearing masks walk at Northern Arizona University to recognize the rights of migrant farm workers in this 2015 file photo.

Northern Arizona University has been awarded the highest rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for policies protecting free expression following a major policy overhaul.

This “green light” rating designates NAU as a university “whose policies nominally protect free speech.” NAU’s award makes Arizona the first state where all rated institutions (NAU, Arizona State University and the University of Arizona) earned green lights.

“Northern Arizona University is very proud to have been awarded a ‘green light’ by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), whose mission is ‘to defend and sustain the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities,’” NAU President Rita Cheng said in a statement.

FIRE strives to defend First Amendment rights, such as freedom of speech and association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience. Though these liberties are constitutionally protected, FIRE reports that nine in 10 colleges around the country restrict free speech.

NAU moved from a yellow light (indicating vague policies that could be used to restrict protected speech) to a green light by revising its computer use policy, which formerly banned “lewd” material.

According to FIRE, this broad term can be applied to constitutionally protected speech; the revised policy earned a green light for its removal of the term while upholding bans on harassment, threats and other unlawful behavior.


Revision of this computer use policy was just one change NAU has made since August 2017, when it began efforts to review and strengthen its policy-making system following an announcement from Cheng.

In a May 2017 letter from Cheng to the university community, she addressed unspecified “incidents relating to campus climate and who and what is ‘protected’ on our campus” and called for action.

“Let me be clear — this university is a place of free thought, free speech, and freedom of expression. We uphold these values through our policies, and I expect our practices to reflect the same,” she said in the letter.

Since then, the university reformatted its entire policy-making system through the creation of a policy library and committee with representatives from various programs, colleges and departments. It also created and filled a new position, Director for Policy and Special Projects. A “policy on policies” (formally the “Development and Administration of University Policies”) was created to guide these individuals in establishing policies that support the university goals and promote consistency and transparency.

The new policy library includes all university policies except academic policies found in the academic catalog, the university mission and program- or department-specific policies. It also lists policies that are currently under review, as well as those next in line.

Interim Dean of Students Erin Grisham, who also serves on the policy committee, said, “The work we’ve done in the last several months that led to the rating was really about clarifying our own internal practices and policies so that we, as an institution, were clear about our commitment to inclusion and diverse thought.”

Grisham said that the university has always had an online reporting structure for students and community members to share their concerns, even anonymously.

More recently, NAU implemented a Speech Expression Action Knowledge (SpEAK) team of faculty and Student Affairs staff members who respond to concerns regarding free expression, especially during controversial on-campus presentations.

Pete Yanka, director of Veteran and Military Services, has served on SpEAK since it was founded about two years ago. He said the team serves to encourage conversations with students, in which they can work through their expression-related issues and SpEAK members can listen and share alternative perspectives.

They also work with the NAU Police Department to manage presentation safety by clearing a space for listeners and students who would like to pass by.


FIRE’s green light award is merely a nonpartisan check to ensure constitutional rights are not being violated by university policies.

Its website states, “A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression. It simply means that FIRE is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.”

Certain liberties have been a concern for NAU students and faculty in the past, a problem the new policy system can strive to remedy.

NAU professor Mary Tolan, former reporter for the Daily Sun and faculty advisor at The Lumberjack student newspaper, said administrative transparency has been difficult at times, especially for student reporters.

“The President’s Office is great for encouraging freedom of information when it concerns information that puts NAU in a positive light, but I found, as an advisor, that my students found it difficult for reporting any deep or serious stories. When trying to get information out of the President’s Office to share it with the student body, it was like pulling teeth from a hen,” she said.

Matthew Strissel, editor-in-chief of The Lumberjack, said free speech on campus can seem like an afterthought to the university’s reputation.

He said that just a few semesters ago, student reporters felt intimidated when finalizing a controversial issue of The Lumberjack about administrative practices.

“When I was print chief, we were putting out an issue that would eventually be titled ‘Challenging Cheng’ and we had a bunch of stories challenging the practices of administration. I noticed one of the higher-ups was in the newsroom, which I had never seen before ever, and when I was putting the pages together, he was looking over my shoulder. I could definitely tell a presence was there,” Strissel said.

Although Strissel said nothing similar has occurred since – possibly because of a lack of such challenging content – he said free speech is not as much of a priority for administrators as it should be.

“I don’t think they go out of their way to encourage free speech. I think they follow what’s required of them, and that’s not to say they’re doing the bare minimum, but they could do better,” he said.

A university guide on free expression on campus states that, though it can restrict the time, place and manner of such expression, it cannot generally discriminate based on content or viewpoint, except harassment and hate speech.

Cheng told the Daily Sun, “We support journalist integrity and are not aware of any formal complaint or charge brought forward in relationship to the [‘Challenging Cheng’] article, despite the almost two years since the publication of the story.”

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Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at kolson@azdailysun.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253. 


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