Free Speech Awakening at University of Georgia?

By on March 1, 2011

Something good for free speech might be happening at the University of Georgia (UGA), and I don’t mean the quiet retirement of the "Party in the UGA" orientation video.

At the beginning of this academic year, UGA brought us Scootergate (video), in which a student was brought up on charges after he sent some negative feedback to UGA Parking Services. (After FIRE intervened, UGA dropped the charges.) UGA also literally brought us the speech policebetween August 1 and September 27, 2010, eight police reports were filed for "acts of intolerance," mainly involving constitutionally protected expression, such as the words "Dick and Sideboob" written on the dry erase board of a student’s dorm room door. (We’re still not sure whom that was supposed to be insufficiently "tolerant" towards.)

But since then, it seems that UGA and some students have started to wake up about students’ fundamental rights.

The first sign came at the end of January, when the student newspaper The Red and Black reported, "Sudden shake-up stirs Office of Student Conduct." It’s hard to infer exactly what this new constellation of administrators means, but earlier this month, The Red and Black reported that UGA President Michael Adams had announced that the university’s yellow-light Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment policy was going under review. Let’s hope that the review makes the policy constitutional, not more speech-restrictive than it already is.

And just this week, two UGA students have stood up for free speech on campus.

On February 27 in The Red and Black, junior Sydney Kida had a strong op-ed warning UGA not to violate free speech if it adds an anti-bullying prohibition to the UGA Code of Conduct:

What we don’t want the new bullying code to do is dull down our language and our culture to the point where even comical exchange is sucker-punched by policy guidelines.

What scares me about this new proposal?

Students thought adding the language to the code would be "beneficial as a precautionary move."

Taking precautions to prevent any objectionable exchanges sounds like the Merriam-Webster definition for censoring.

[...]

We must ensure our precautionary move is not creating a comfortable atmosphere – at the expense of different perspectives.

Kida adds that UGA’s existing free speech zone policy is also terrible for free speech on campus:

Campus speech is already severely limited. We are allowed the area in front of Memorial Hall and the Tate Plaza to speak our minds freely.

But wait!

Before you share your opinions, be sure to make an appointment to do so between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Oh, and make sure your content is approved by the Department of Campus Life beforehand.

One last thing: this is only available Monday through Friday.

But other than that – you are free to express yourself!

Also, on February 28 in The Red and Black, senior Sarah Saltzman strongly argued for reform of UGA’s unconstitutional speech codes and for First Amendment education in the University Judiciary (especially for peers on the student-run court):

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has given the University speech codes (outlined in the Code of Conduct) a red rating.

And this is not because red is one of the University’s school colors.

A red rating symbolizes the University has a policy that restricts freedom of speech clearly and substantially.

The Acts of Intolerance policy – affecting students living in residential housing – can land students a judicial hearing for making a joke or comment.

Writing a sarcastic statement on a dorm door dry erase board that could "harm or threaten to harm a person" can send a notification letter your way.

[...]

Since harm is vaguely written into the Acts of Intolerance, saying something as simple as "I don’t like your dorm room" or even "I support Israel" to someone who doesn’t, can cause "harm" to sensitive students.

[...]

To improve University Judiciary, the speech codes written in the Code of Conduct must be rewritten to protect freedom of speech.

If the codes do not change, students who participate in University Judiciary need to learn the First Amendment of the Constitution in detail to safeguard against unfair speech codes imposed by the University.

I hope that Kida and Saltzman represent a new awakening of University of Georgia students who are concerned about protecting their fundamental rights.

Schools: University of Georgia Cases: University of Georgia: Police Investigate and Censor “Intolerance” in Residence Halls University of Georgia: Student Faces Charges for Complaint about Parking Services University of Georgia: Restriction on Fraternities’ Free Speech Rights