Northeastern Student Speaks Out; FIRE Responds

By on June 13, 2007

In response to my blog entry about Northeastern’s speech code, Northeastern undergraduate Daniel Kamyck sent us the following comment:

While I enjoy keeping aware of FIRE’s work across the country, and though I support the defense of individual rights in an academic setting, I’m disappointed that FIRE has chosen to ridicule the Acceptable Use Policy at Northeastern University.

As an undergraduate student, I support the existing policy. I think it’s quite silly that you’ve declared, by your measure, that most students at Northeastern would support having this policy rescinded. More likely, most reasonable students here, constituting the majority, would agree that the university cannot sustain wasted network resources.

“Offensive” necessarily includes waste, criminality and fraud, and thus protects students from having their tuition misspent on maintaining expensively misused networks. Just as my supervisor at work can choose to release me for misusing corporate networking resources, my university is legally obliged to permit computing access on its premises, with its property, according to the existing Appropriate Use Policy.

Across the country, there is a clear administrative imperative to restrict usage of network resources according to generally-accepted standards. This is common throughout academia, public institutional work, and—especially relevant to the cooperative-education model at Northeastern—corporate work. Northeastern remains a marketplace of ideas, despite your objection to the contrary.

We always appreciate hearing from students about FIRE issues, even if they disagree with us. Students are why we exist, and it’s important for us to understand the variety of student perspectives out there on free speech issues. In a Northeastern News article, several students expressed their opposition to the Appropriate Use Policy, and Mr. Kamyck wanted us to know there were students out there who support the policy as well.

That being said, I’d like to explain in a little more detail why I believe students should not support this particular policy, even if they believe that the university has a legitimate right to regulate the use of its network resources.

The Appropriate Use Policy provides, in relevant part, that students may not:

Generate and/or spread intolerant or hateful material, which in the sole judgment of the University is directed against any individual or group, based on race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, veteran status, genetic makeup, or disability.

Transmit or make accessible material, which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive….

The policy employs several vague terms—intolerant, hateful, and offensive—and vests complete discretion in the university to determine which student communications are punishable. These are terms that mean very different things to different people—what is offensive to me may not be offensive to you, and vice versa—and yet the university provides absolutely no concrete standards by which student communications will be judged, instead leaving it entirely up to the university administration. As a result, students have no way of knowing, in advance, whether their writings might be deemed intolerant or offensive, and have to guess at what they can or cannot say.

While Mr. Kamyck is correct that “offensive” includes “waste, criminality and fraud” (things the university clearly has a right to regulate), in our experience it also often includes a great deal of controversial yet entirely legitimate dialogue. Most so-called “offensive” or “intolerant” expression is nonetheless protected by the First Amendment, which would make Northeastern’s policy unconstitutional at a public university. Northeastern, although a private institution, promises its students the right to free speech—so shouldn’t Northeastern students have the same rights as their counterparts at Massachusetts’ public colleges and universities?

When universities have unfettered discretion to punish students for constitutionally protected speech simply because someone finds it “offensive” or “intolerant,” the results are often disastrous. FIRE regularly defends the rights of students who find their academic careers in jeopardy over the expression of a controversial opinion, and we see in Northeastern’s Appropriate Use Policy the potential for precisely this type of situation to arise. To provide just a few examples:

  • Tufts University’s conservative student newspaper, The Primary Source, has been punished for publishing articles satirizing affirmative action and Islamic extremist violence.
  • William Paterson University in New Jersey threatened to punish a student employee for sending an e-mail critical of homosexuality in response to an unsolicited e-mail he received inviting him to a film about lesbian relationships.
  • Johns Hopkins University punished a student for posting a Halloween party invitation on Facebook.com that some students found offensive.
  • The University of New Hampshire punished a student for posting a flier in his residence hall suggesting that women could lose the ‘Freshman 15’ by taking the stairs instead of the elevator.

The list goes on, but these examples demonstrate the danger of allowing a university to decide what is offensive. The Appropriate Use Policy regulates a tremendous amount of student communication, and it threatens students with punishment for controversial speech without providing any clear guidelines at all as to what is punishable and what isn’t. The result of a policy like this is that students will hold back from engaging in the kinds of controversial discussions that should be the hallmark of a liberal arts education and that should flow freely at an institution like Northeastern that promises students the right to free speech.

So while Mr. Kamyck is correct that the university has the right to regulate the use of its network resources, the way in which they are doing so is terribly wrong. FIRE would love to hear from other Northeastern students both about this policy and about the free speech climate at Northeastern in general.

Schools: Northeastern University