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Murray State President on Balancing Free Speech and Campus Safety

Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Murray State University President Bob Davies said he doesn't predict a Charlottesville-like event on campus but isn't ruling out 'occurrences' in the future.

A white nationalist rally at the University of Virginia earlier this month ended in violence and has sparked national discussion about free speech and Confederate statues. The rally was centered around a statue of Robert E. Lee.

Davies said at a Board of Regents retreat on Thursday he will defend first amendment rights but will also protect campus safety. He said it’s a matter of “not if but when” and mentioned that the campus has been a target of ‘conflicting values’ related to free speech and safety.

He noted the appearance on campus last year of the Traditionalist Workers Party, which is a hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group had been invited by a student. Following the incident last year, Davies said Murray State is a "Marketplace of Ideas."

The board also discussed a march through campus coinciding with the national Women's March on Washington and a “hugging” demonstration on campus following last year’s presidential election.

Campus officials are assessing related protocols and policies. Davies said safety is paramount - as is the first amendment - and wants to make sure there is a balance of both. He noted other universities dis-inviting speakers, specifically Penn State’s decision not to host white nationalist Richard Spencer.

Murray State Police Chief Jamie Herring said organizers communicating with law enforcement in advance can help parties understand the rules. He said sometimes protesters want to get arrested as part of a political statement and wants to outline protocol with organizers in advance so they know what would happen if police given an order to disperse. Herring said, “We don’t want to be the focus of any kind of demonstration.” He encourages organizers to police themselves as any incidents could reflect poorly on them, and such understandings have worked well in the past.

Herring said if the purpose of a university is education then there isn't an obligation to let the general public onto campus, noting public locations elsewhere. There is, however, a "free speech zone" on campus near Waterfield Library that anyone can use. Davies said the area in front of the library serves as a central "hub" on campus and is naturally a focal area. Groups can reserve space per invite by a student organization - this serves as a prior notification to the campus police to prepare.

Davies said the university has received correspondence involving the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in downtown Murray. He said there are a few 'gifts in kind' of Confederate nature as part of university archives. There is a medal on display in Wrather Museum honoring Confederate Sergeant James Carter Stubblefield. The corresponding plaque notes his "courage and good conduct on the field of battle" in the Battle of Murfreesboro, also known as the Battle of Stones River. The letter above the medal has a Sons of Confederate Veterans seal on it and is dated June 9, 2010.

This story has been updated.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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