PSU free speech comes under ‘fire’

November 14, 2007

Penn State free speech policies continue to concern Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which upheld the university’s “red light” rating after this fall’s reassessment.

However, some university officials said the policies highlighted in FIRE’s report do not violate the First Amendment.

The 8-year-old nonprofit organization, which, according to its Web site, claims to “defend and sustain individual rights” at universities, reassessed Penn State’s policies in September.

FIRE’s Web site, www.thefire.org, said the university received the rating because it “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

“A ‘clear’ restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression,” the Web site reads.

FIRE legal director Samantha Harris said an attorney reviews universities’ policies.

“The policy that concerns us in particular is the Penn State principles, which basically says that members of the Penn State community agree to abide by the principles,” she said.

The part of the policy that concerns FIRE is the use of the words “taunting, ridiculing and insulting,” she said.

“Some of what it bans is entirely legitimate,” Harris said. “Unless the insulting rises to the level of harassment or discrimination … you’re talking about constitutionally protected speech.

“By banning all taunting, ridiculing and insulting, the school is banning a lot of protected speech, which, as a public university, it’s not permitted to do,” she said.

Co-director of the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amendment Clay Calvert said he is familiar with FIRE.

“While FIRE certainly is an organization that has very good intentions in terms of student’s free speech rights on college campuses, which can be a major issue … personally, I think Penn State policies … do not raise any issues or problems,” Calvert said. “I think the university has done a great job of trying to balance student’s free speech rights with the necessity of maintaining an educational atmosphere.”

Penn State spokesman Geoff Rushton said FIRE’s rating is “something to garner attention.”

“I’m not sure how addressing the potential for a hostile work or learning environment is unconstitutional, and free speech and expression take place daily at Penn State,” he said. “We vigorously defend free speech.”

Rushton said he was unsure how FIRE had come to the conclusion that Penn State’s policies were insufficient.

“Like I said, it seemed to be that was their problem with us having any policies whatsoever, and in most cases, it seemed to be taking things out of context,” he said.

FIRE’s assessment did not shock Safeguard Old State executive director Gavin Keirans.

“I don’t think [the rating is] at all surprising,” he said, “and I think it speaks to lack of student engagement and a lack of students being able to truly voice their concerns.”

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Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park