Foundation claims WVU violates students’ speech rights

February 23, 2007

West Virginia University is violating students’ First Amendment rights, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The “red light” ranking by FIRE means that the rights of students protected by the First Amendment are being violated on campus.

The survey was done on over 334 institutions across the country and an overwhelming 229 colleges and universities were red-lighted, including WVU. An additional 91 were yellow-lighted, meaning they had minor infractions, and only eight institutions were green-lighted, meaning they did not violate students’ First Amendment rights.

The survey was conducted after FIRE learned about Michigan State University’s policy regarding “reformed thought and compelled speech,” that has been in effect since 1998.

MSU has a Student Accountability in Community seminar that forces students whose speech or behavior is deemed unacceptable to undergo ideological reeducation at their own expenses, according to an article written by FIRE.

There has been some concern in the WVU community about such a policy being implemented here.

“In checking with the general counsel’s office, there is no basis for the rumor and no plans to implements such a policy here,” said Becky Lofstead, spokeswoman for the University.

The sessions at MSU can be either voluntary or mandatory, depending on the offense.

A mandatory SAC session means that a student is required to go and pay for the psychological educational session or a hold will be placed on the student’s account, effectively meaning they are expelled, according to the same FIRE article.

According to MSU’s documents, the program is an early intervention for students who use “power-and-control tactics” and “male/white privilege.” MSU currently defines these as “any action of obscuring, concealing, or changing people’s perceptions that result in your advantage and or another’s disadvantage.”

“As always, the path to hell is paved with good intentions,” said Will Creeley, staff attorney and senior program officer for FIRE.

This program was based on an early domestic abuse program. This type of mandatory counseling may work in domestic abuse cases but it doesn’t translate well in the free speech space, Creeley said.

“This casts a wide net and (MSU) is punishing people for speech that no matter how much they may not like it, or how abhorrent the speech may be, it’s still protected by the First Amendment,” Creeley said.

The program is a clear violation of students’ right to due process, as guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment and made applicable under the 14th Amendment, because it punishes students without clear adherence to the minimal guarantees of process so required, Creeley wrote in an e-mail.

“By punishing students for engaging in constitutionally protected speech, the SAC program is an unconstitutional speech code in violation of the First Amendment,” Creeley said.

For more information on FIRE, visit www.thefire.org/speechcodereport.php.

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Schools: West Virginia University