FIRE’s Azhar Majeed on Utah Valley’s Speech Codes

By July 3, 2013

FIRE Associate Director of Legal and Public Advocacy Azhar Majeed spoke earlier this week with Alex Sousa of the UVU Review, Utah Valley University’s student newspaper, about the public institution’s two “red light” speech codes—policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. As Sousa’s article notes, both red light policies deal with sexual harassment, an issue of particular concern to FIRE and other free speech advocates after the Departments of Education and Justice’s May 9 “blueprint” letter mandating overbroad sexual harassment policies on campuses across the country. One of UVU’s speech codes prohibits, among other things, “any … unwelcome verbal or physical sexual activity, including the support or assistance of such activities.” Azhar explained why this policy is troublesome: “When you leave [a policy] that broad and that open-ended, it essentially leaves it open to interpretation, and—in any given case—in the hands of the wrong administrator or in the hands of the wrong student you can end up claiming sexual harassment against somebody for an innocuous kind of speech,” said Majeed. Particularly when there is no requirement that speech be objectively offensive, administrators could easily punish a student for speech protected by the First Amendment. UVU’s “yellow light” policies—those that could potentially be abused to silence speech—include restrictions on peaceful assemblies, which students often use to provide commentary on current events and political issues. One policy directs students to “[p]lan your peaceful assemblies through the Vice President for Student Services Office,” a requirement that could delay or chill responses to ongoing debates on campus. As Azhar noted, this policy should be revised as well: “You would think that at a public university, students peacefully assembling on campus to speak out, to demonstrate, to protest—what have you—would be not just protected but encouraged by the administration. I would think you want an active and caring student body when it comes to the issues of the day,” said Majeed. Of course, FIRE is always happy to help revise speech codes at any college or university—and we do it for free! Check out the rest of what Azhar had to say in the UVU Review.

Schools: Utah Valley University