The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has composed an open letter to the Office for Civil Rights Assistant Secretary Russlynn Ali, calling for the Department of Education not to encourage more restrictive speech codes at colleges and universities.
The letter also included the signatures of other groups, including Accuracy in Academia, the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and The Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University.
"For decades now, college administrators have struggled to define discriminatory harassment," says the letter, reports Malcolm A. Kline at Accuracy in Academia.
"Define harassment too broadly, and an institution might be on the losing end of a First Amendment lawsuit, the latest in a long line of courtroom defeats dating back more than twenty years… Define harassment too narrowly, and a student might sue for ignoring Title IX violations."
Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 is often cited in sport and sexual harassment suits.
"A 2010 survey of policies at nearly 400 universities conducted by attorneys from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that two-thirds of schools maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict protected speech," says the letter.
"Many of these restrictions are broad or vague harassment policies. For example, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign defines sexual harassment to include any ‘statement that is offensive, humiliating, or an interference with required tasks or career opportunities.’ Jackson State University prohibits as harassment ‘verbally abusive language by any person on University-owned or controlled property.’ Marshall University’s harassment policy bans expression that causes or was intended to cause ‘mental harm, injury, fear, stigma, disgrace, degradation, or embarrassment.’"
This letter comes after a 2012 FIRE report on campus speech codes, which found that the vast majority of the 392 colleges and universities analyzed still maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.
Virginia was the best state for free speech on campus, with only 29% of schools rated having "red light" speech codes. Illinois was the worst of the larger states, with 100% of its schools earning red light status.