After being named editor-in-chief of the Mississippi State University student newspaper, Heather Harrison sits in her office which is adorned with a pink flower backdrop for podcast interviews and other decorations that show her self-expression.
In her time with The Reflector as the editor and as a reporter, Harrison has seen some controversial opinions grace the opinion page, but never once has she been afraid of running the students’ voices.
“We as students are not afraid to voice our concerns, our opinions, our needs,” Harrison said. “… Even though we have published negative things about the university, the university never directly came to us and told us to take the content down. They understand that with any university decision there’s going to be a good side and a bad side.”
In a recent list compiled by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, MSU is ranked fourth overall in the 2022-23 College Free Speech Rankings. MSU is the only college from the Southeastern Conference and from Mississippi ranked in the top 20 best colleges for free speech.
Surveys were sent out to roughly 200 students at more than 200 colleges across the country each, and nearly 45,000 students nationwide filled out the survey, the FIRE methodology report states. In the survey, students rate their experiences on college campuses regarding free speech.
The final FIRE rankings are based on openness to discuss challenging topics, tolerance for expression of opposing views, administrative support and comfort in communicating ideas. Sean Stevens, senior research fellow for polling and analytics at FIRE, told The Dispatch students are surveyed about many different settings including in the classroom and on social media.
“We ask students if they are comfortable expressing their views in a variety of contexts on campus,” Stevens said in an email. “… We also ask questions about tolerance for controversial/offensive speakers, the acceptability of illiberal forms of protest (e.g., shouting down a speaker), if the administration’s stance on free speech is clear and if they expect the administration to defend a speaker during a controversy. Finally students are also asked to identify which controversial social issues (e.g., mask mandates, gun control, racial inequality) are difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus.”
Vice President of Student Affairs Regina Hyatt said the top-5 ranking for free speech as a university in the South shows the university staff and students are open to discussing differing opinions.
“MSU is a place where you can be who you are and bring with you new ways of thinking and ideas that may be controversial,” Hyatt said.
“What you will find here are people who are willing to listen to you, whether their minds are changed or not, and to do so with respect and dignity. We are a kind place. We are a place that wants our visitors, our students, our community to feel like they belong. The right to express oneself is fundamentally aligned with this sense of belonging.”
Harrison agrees. As students of the university, sometimes opinions in the paper can be critical of MSU. When the paper receives feedback, it is mostly from other students or the community.
Student reporters and opinion writers have written about university issues such as the structure of the chemistry department, parking and driving on campus and the recent “Bulldog bundle” at the bookstore meant to take a financial burden off students.
Harrison said in her work at The Reflector and in classes, she has never feared backlash from the university administration or her teachers.
“I’m always the one that’s going to raise my hand and say something,” Harrison said. “I like that I don’t necessarily have to agree with whatever the textbook says or maybe even with what the professor says. I’m not going to be rude about it, of course, but I never feel afraid to voice my opinion. … I never feel like I shouldn’t share what I’m thinking.”
Recently, Harrison joined other groups on campus at a retreat to discuss issues on campus and where the university can improve. Groups that attended were ones such as The Reflector, Latino Student Association, Black Student Association, the Residence Hall Association and the MSU Student Association.
MSUSA president Kennedy Guest was at the retreat and said diversity discussions that take place during events like this are crucial to knowing administrators do want to hear differing opinions.
Guest said the ranking isn’t possible without the Golden Triangle community contributing to conversations and coming to campus to speak on different topics.
“We know that the greater Starkville community, which includes Columbus and the surrounding area, was a big part of this ranking,” Guest said. “The ability of individuals, who are not directly affiliated with campus, to come on and speak their minds … did a lot for this, and we are certainly grateful.”
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