Student Scrutinizes University of Arizona’s Speech Codes in Campus Op-Ed

By October 14, 2011

University of Arizona (UA) student and Campus Freedom Network member Jonathan Messing penned an excellent op-ed in the UA campus newspaper the Daily Wildcat yesterday, drawing attention to the university’s speech codes. As Jonathan points out, UA currently maintains two yellow-light policies restricting student speech. While these policies undoubtedly chill campus dialogue and discussion, the good news is that UA is not terribly far from a green-light rating: It does not have any egregious red-light policies, and all it needs to do is revise these two yellow-light speech codes in order to become our latest green-light institution.

Jonathan points out that if UA were to do so, it would join in-state rival Arizona State University (ASU) on that prestigious list:

Earlier this year, ASU eliminated its last remaining speech code, giving it a "green light" rating (meaning it has no restrictions on free speech) from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that defends student and faculty individual rights at campuses nationwide. In fact, FIRE ranked ASU in the Huffington Post as one of the best universities in the country for freedom of speech, an honor it shared with only six other schools.

Of UA’s speech codes, on the other hand, Jonathan writes:

The U of A, conversely, maintains two unconstitutional speech codes: a Non-discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and a Policy and Regulations Governing the Use of Campus.

The first policy states that harassing conduct includes "verbal acts and name calling," even though this is protected speech. Not only is this policy constitutionally suspicious at first appearance, it is vague and gives the university unencumbered discretion, because "verbal acts" means virtually any speech. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, made clear that conduct must be so "severe, pervasive and objectively offensive" that it denies the victim equal access to educational opportunities or benefits, to count as peer harassment.

The second policy requires 24-hour notice for any gathering expected to include 25 or more people or "advertised by any medium." This impedes students’ right to engage in campus protests, demonstrations and other spontaneous gatherings with expressive purposes. Spontaneous speech is necessary for the free exchange of ideas, as often students will not know ahead of time that they will be reacting to immediate or still-unfolding events.

The fix for both of these policies is rather simple, so I hope that the administration at the University of Arizona is paying attention to Jonathan’s analysis and heeding his words. Our thanks to Jonathan and to the Daily Wildcat for their efforts in bringing attention to this worthy cause.

Schools: University of Arizona