Analysis: USU codes restrict free speech

By on December 12, 2006

Utah State University housing and student code policies restrict free speech protected by the First Amendment, according to a new report released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.



Some of the school’s policies were called “weird” and “laughable” by FIRE President Greg Lukianoff because, he said, they require students to hold values set by the university. But Gary Chambers, USU’s vice president of student services, said the school policies in question were taken out of context by the FIRE and said they were created to foster respect and understanding between students and faculty — not to quelch expression.



“When I read these things in a report, you have taken words that are there to provide learning and civility and taken it out of context to say it’s in violation of free speech,” Chambers said.



The university is one of 229 higher education institutions to receive a red-light rating, meaning it has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” FIRE rated 328 schools, with 91 receiving a yellow-light rating, meaning they restrict “only narrow categories of speech. Only eight schools were found to have no policies that restrict free speech. The University of Utah also received a red-light rating. Brigham Young University was not rated.



USU is under fire, in part, because of the school’s student code that prohibits phrases that “could be viewed as sexual harassment” such as “referring to an adult woman or man as a hunk, doll, babe or honey.” It also quotes the housing handbook, which states that housing community members must respect the “dignity of all persons, by not demeaning, teasing, ridiculing or insulting individuals and groups.”



“Every college student violates that policy in some way every single day and you simply should not be passing rules that essentially are impossible to live by,” Lukianoff said. “That the government has an interest in policing teasing — it’s not consistent to a free university and free society.”



Lukianoff also questioned the part of the housing handbook that obligates housing community members to challenge “friends and neighbors within the housing community to abide by these fundamental expectations” and confront “those who violate them …”



“The USU code as written is essentially deputizing students to enforce an unconstitutional speech code,” Lukianoff said.



Chambers said such rules are in place to encourage students to discuss differences in a civil manner. He said the university provides opportunities for students to express themselves, as long as they follow procedures to do so. A student or group must fill out a form to hold a demonstration, rally or debate on campus. The form is required to state the time, place and manner of the event so it doesn’t interfere with student learning and gives campus police an idea if it could get disorderly. But the university does not control the content or purpose of the rallies, he said.



“Done in a civil way there is a much more enhanced opportunity for understanding to take place,” Chambers said. “That creates a nice environment. We would hope that would be the case with freedom of expression.”



He said the housing rules are in place to keep people who are disruptive from hurting others’ rights. For example, if someone stands up in a common area and constantly yells swear words to the point that other students can’t study, they will be asked to leave, Chambers said.



“There still has to be some order and structure in living together,” Chambers said. “It’s not a free-for-all.”

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