Mixed grades on free speech at Maryland universities

January 20, 2012

Maryland’s universities get mixed reviews on their policies regarding free expression, according to a new report on speech codes in U.S. higher education.

The "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2012" from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) examined speech codes at 392 public and private colleges and universities in the United States as to how restrictive their written policies were regarding student expression.

Among the four Maryland universities that the report assessed, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore received a "red light," the lowest rating, primarily for its policy against "rude" behavior and restrictions on uses of its information technology. Schools also could receive yellow- and green-light ratings, with the latter being the highest.

The University of Maryland, College Park scored a yellow light, as did Towson University. The rating means that a school’s policies leave the door open for higher education officials to restrict student speech, but aren’t explicitly restrictive themselves.

Schools receive several ratings on individual aspects of their speech policies that factor into their final rating.

A university such as Johns Hopkins earns a red light if, for example, there is a ban on "offensive speech." A Johns Hopkins policy states that, "Rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated."

The university also earned a red light for restricting offensive or profane material posted through the university’s information technology resources.

Frostburg State University also received a red light, meanwhile, for restricting speech using the school’s information technology by requiring "appropriate language" and banning obscenity.

The report does not rely on individual incidents of student censorship, said Samantha Harris, the report’s author, but only on written speech policies.

However, Harris said Johns Hopkins was hurt in the report’s rankings by a 2006 incident in which a school fraternity member was punished for posting a party invitation on Facebook that the university deemed offensive, because the incident led to new restrictions on speech.

"It’s particularly bad because in response to this incident, which should not have led to the punishment of a student, they adopted a new speech code," Harris said.

But Johns Hopkins spokesman Dennis O’Shea said FIRE simply has been targeting the school for several years over incidents involving a conservative student newspaper and a pro-war professor, but that students didn’t need the organization to "tell them how to think."

"I don’t think that people buy into the notion that encouraging civility is somehow less than encouraging the free expression of ideas," O’Shea said.

FIRE describes itself as supporting individual student rights such as legal equality, freedom of speech, due process, religious liberty, and "sanctity of conscience."

Two competing forces are at work, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center, which advocates for students’ First Amendment rights.

Even as students are becoming more aware of their individual rights on campuses and how their colleges may not protect their speech, higher education officials are feeling pressure from the U.S. Department of Education to crack down on bullying and harassment.

"The threat of sanctions from the U.S. Department of Education or potential civil liability is causing schools to look at whether they need to prohibit more and more speech," LoMonte said.

The College Park campus earned a green-light rating for its policy on using information technology that forbids censorship. However, it earned a yellow light for its "Multicultural Philosophy," which warns against attempts to repress or undermine individuals or groups and forbids harassment.

FIRE has argued that although universities must try to prevent actual harassment, they sometimes misuse this policy to restrict free speech.

College Park’s University Senate is drafting a policy that affirms students’ rights to free speech and expression on campus, said Lauren Redding, editor in chief of The Diamondback, the school’s independent student newspaper.

The policy became a priority, Redding noted, in the wake of the Occupy movement’s protests at the University of California, Davis last year during which students were pepper-sprayed by campus police.

"The university just wanted to reiterate its stance and say, what happened at UC Davis will not happen here," said Redding, a junior.

In the wake of controversy in 2009 over the screening of an X-rated film on campus tied to a Planned Parenthood presentation, many administrators showed up at an off-campus screening in support of free expression, she recalled.

The Diamondback itself lost university funding in 1971 over its criticism of the Vietnam War.

Nationwide, 65 percent of schools received red-light ratings.

The U.S. Naval Academy, meanwhile, was not rated in FIRE’s report because it "holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech."

To view FIRE’s ratings and reports of the four Maryland universities rated, go to http://thefire.org/spotlight/states/MD.html