CFN Conference Attendee Takes the Spirit Back to Campus at University of North Florida

By October 11, 2010

University of North Florida (UNF) student and 2010 CFN Conference attendee Edgar Aroutiounian recently published an op-ed in his school’s newspaper, The Spinnaker, exposing UNF’s speech policies. In the op-ed (page 9 of PDF file), Edgar does a great job of discussing the importance of allowing unbridled discourse at a public university such as UNF and calling for reform of UNF’s speech codes. An eager attendee of our summer student conference (so eager, in fact, that he drove all night to make it to Philadelphia in time!), Edgar has certainly taken the CFN spirit back to campus with him.

Edgar’s op-ed, titled "UNF should not leave free speech at the door," begins by recognizing the special importance of freedom of speech in the university setting. Edgar writes:

It is at the university where the marketplace of ideas is most competitive, where academics pit their years of research against one another and where students may flourish from this competition. It is at the university where most of us will shape the identities of ourselves, which we will carry on for the rest of our lives.

Thus, I believe it is beneficial for speech to be free and flowing at UNF. When students hear all points of view, they are in a better position to form right or wrong judgments.

He laments, however, that a number of speech codes at UNF impinge upon this critical process.

Edgar first draws attention to a "Sexual Misconduct" policy in UNF’s Student Conduct Code. That policy prohibits "Conduct of a sexual nature that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive campus, educational, or working environment for another person. This includes unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate or irrelevant sexual or gender-based activities or comments that are sexual in nature." Of this policy, he writes:

This code bans an entire litany of constitutionally protected speech; furthermore, it is almost impossible to tell before a comment has been said whether or not that someone else will find those comments unwelcome or inappropriate.

This speech code can also be used to ban speech regarding reproductive rights, gay marriage, gender equality and other "hot-button" issues. This existing policy could also leave it up to the discretion of an administrator as to what should count as "relevant" to a discussion on campus, effectively ceding censorship powers to the administrator.

Thus, the most hypersensitive members of our community could effectively censor the views of other students should those students desire to hold a workshop or conference on a controversial issue.

Well said, Edgar. UNF’s Sexual Misconduct policy is indeed highly restrictive of campus dialogue and debate. The fact that the policy actually bans "irrelevant" comments about sexual or gender-based issues, while giving the term no explanation and affording administrators in charge of enforcing the policy the complete liberty to decide what may or may not be relevant for campus discourse, is especially egregious to me. This policy’s existence quite obviously restricts the ability of UNF students to freely discuss the issues of the day, and it is therefore a necessary target for policy reform at the university.

Edgar’s op-ed next turns its attention to UNF’s "Computer Misuse" policy, prohibiting "Use of computing facilities or technology to send or receive obscene or abusive material." He also takes note of UNF’s policy on "Disruptive Behavior," which similarly bans "Verbal abuse (written and oral)." In response to these two policies, both of which can also be found in the Student Conduct Code, Edgar writes:

A great collection of speech could be characterized as abusive; however, that speech still enjoys First Amendment protection.

The status of a strongly worded political opinion is left to the discretion of an administrator that may find it to be "abusive" and thereby ban that speech. The effect of banning is to punish the student for expressing constitutionally protected rights. Not only does this silence the voice of a student, it is also illegal and contrary to the laws of the land.

Edgar concludes his op-ed by calling for reform of UNF’s speech policies:

UNF has a vibrant and growing community of students, none of whom illegal speech codes should silence. These codes restrict the growth of dialogue by having a chilling effect on future speech and do no service to a student of UNF.

I can only hope that his fellow students join the chorus, and that the administration at UNF listens. I thank Edgar for his time and effort in bringing attention to his university’s speech codes.

Schools: University of North Florida