Police Investigate Jokes about Human Anatomy on Whiteboards in University of Georgia Residence Halls

By on October 19, 2010

The speech police are out in full force in the dorms at the University of Georgia!

On August 21, University of Georgia (UGA) police officer David Rocklein reports:

I was dispatched to Boggs Hall in reference to an act of intolerance. I made contact with the complainant … who stated that while making rounds at 1900 hour she noticed that a bulletin board that was supposed to have "WELCOME TO BOGGS 3RD FLOOR" had been changed to "WELCOME TO BOOBS 3RD FLOOR."

One day later, police officer Ty Vickery reports:

[A resident assistant] took us up to room [REDACTED] of Myers Hall were [sic] a picture of a males [sic] penis with flames around it that was drawn on a dry erase board. [Her] picture had the words "FIRE CROTCH" with the picture next to it.

And on August 27 police officer Rocklein reports:

I was dispatched to … Oglethorpe House in reference to a neighborhood complaint. I made contact with the complainant [a resident assistant] … who stated that while making rounds … he noticed that someone had written "Dick and Sideboob" on the dry erase board on the door … [The resident assistant] stated that he was an RA. I made contact with [another student] who stated that he was the one who wrote it on the board [and] stated that he was just messing with a buddy of his. I made contact with the occupant of [the] room … who stated that [the other student] was indeed a friend of his and he was not offended at all. I took photographs of the board. I had [the RA] erase the board while I was still on scene. I issued [the RA] a case reference card.

The RAs were just doing their jobs when they called in the police to investigate and censor their fellow students, according to a report in the University of Georgia newspaper The Red & Black on UGA’s "Acts of Intolerance" policy, which is enforced in UGA’s residence halls.

While the "Bias-Related Incidents" policy at the Claremont Colleges is badrequiring e-mail notification of all students at all five colleges whenever such "incidents" occurthe University of Georgia policy is much worse, requiring police involvement to investigate and censor protected speech.

UGA’s policy is about as bad, in fact, as the unconstitutional policy in the University of Delaware residence halls (PDF) that required immediate notification of the authorities, day or nightthe same level of alarm accorded to arson and sexual assault, and at a higher level of alarm than physical fights, theft, and major vandalismif an RA noted "[a]ny instance that is perceived by those involved as being racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive."

Under pressure from FIRE and the First Amendment, the University of Delaware revised this speech code.

Now, here’s UGA’s Acts of Intolerance policy in full:

Acts of intolerance are behaviors that, by intent and/or outcome, harm or threaten to harm a person or group. These behaviors are motivated by prejudice toward a person or group because of their race, religion, ethnicity, abilities, national origin, gender, body size, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation. An act of intolerance can include either overt or covert actions, including verbal attacks and/or physical assaults on students and/or their property (including residence hall doors), as well as jokes, posters or comments.

And here’s Samantha’s take on the policy, in the Red & Black article:

“This policy is very vague, in that it prohibits behaviors — including verbal behaviors — that ‘harm or threaten to harm’ a person or group,” said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at FIRE. “If this referred only to physical harm, that would be a different situation. But since it prohibits intolerant ‘jokes’ and ‘comments,’ it clearly also applies to some undefined type of emotional harm as well. At a public university like the University of Georgia, students cannot be disciplined simply for telling offensive jokes or making intolerant remarks, however deplorable those may be.”

Indeed, UGA’s policy lumps together activities which clearly are not protected (physical assault, destruction/vandalism of property) with a whole lot of expression that is clearly protected (jokes, posters, comments) even if somebody feels a little upset after being exposed to it. No surprise, then, that FIRE rates this policy as a "red light" for clearly and substantially burdening speech.

According to The Red & Black, UGA Assistant Director for Residence Life Russell Smith is not bothered by this speech code in the least, justifying it by saying that "[w]e want to protect students from insensitive words and actions that target them for being different from the mainstream." When asked about the constitutional issues with the speech code, he brushes it off by saying, "[t]alk to a student who has been attacked on a floor [of a residence hall] for being different."

Further exposition by The Red & Black makes UGA’s strategy look no better:

Crystal Weigle, a resident assistant at Myers Hall, said all resident assistants are required by University Housing to report any incident that may be offensive to any student, even if the students involved are not offended.

“In order for us to cover any of it, we cover all of it,” Smith said.

UGA’s policy is broad enough as interpreted here to encompass virtually all human expression, depending as it does on the subjective feeling of a resident assistant about the possible subjective feeling of offense on the part of any other student. Apparently, resident assistants are required as part of their job to report anything that could conceivably be offensive even if nobody is actually offended. And RAs apparently must notify the police.

Is there an epidemic of "intolerance" swarming through UGA’s residence halls? Is UGA nobly "protecting" weak and broken students who can’t speak up for themselves in the face of big bad bullies? Er, no. The Red & Black points out that the actual reported speech is quite minor stuff: "The content of the messages reported were usually references to male and/or female anatomy," as in the examples above. The Red & Black links us to the police reportsyes, police reportsfiled from the eight incidents reported under the policy between August 1 and September 27, where we get to see the vague policy in action.

Smith makes reference to one other incident in which the line "Southern trees bear strange fruit" was written on one dry erase board (which, the report points out, was on a door that led to a maintenance closet and not the room of any student). This line, he says, is a reference to lynching and is still being investigated. For those who don’t know, the line comes from a famous anti-racism poem that was later put to music by Billie Holiday and became one of the most famous songs of the last century. Granted, we don’t know the full context for its use on the door of the maintenance closet, but apparently the subjective suspicion of possible offense is all it takes to trigger an investigation.

(I would allow myself to be surprised by this one, but events in recent years at IUPUI and the University of Delaware have taught me otherwise. If you don’t know about the IUPUI case yet, please do click the link.)

The University of Georgia is clearly and substantially violating the First Amendment rights of all of the students in its residence halls. This must stop immediately.

Schools: University of Georgia Cases: University of Georgia: Police Investigate and Censor “Intolerance” in Residence Halls