The State of Free Speech on Campus: Carnegie Mellon University

By February 3, 2009

Throughout the spring semester, FIRE is drawing special attention to the state of free speech at America’s top 25 national universities (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report). Thus far, we have told you about the restrictive policies in place at UCLA, the University of Virginia, and Georgetown University. Today we review policies at Carnegie Mellon University, the first institution in our series to receive a green-light rating.

A green-light rating means that FIRE has found no policies that seriously imperil student speech on campus. A green-light rating does not imply perfection; there may still be room for improvement even at a university whose policies do not pose a serious threat to free speech. In fact, there is some room for improvement in Carnegie Mellon’s policies, and we will explain today what the university could do to even better protect free speech on campus. But Carnegie Mellon and the other green-light institutions should be commended, in a culture where restrictions on campus speech are the norm, for largely living up to the ideal of the university as a marketplace of ideas.

Carnegie Mellon is a private university. Thus, to understand why it is even required to uphold the right to free speech, we must look at the promises it makes to its students. The university’s Freedom of Expression Policy provides that:

Carnegie Mellon University values the freedoms of speech, thought, expression and assembly-in themselves and as part of our core educational and intellectual mission. If individuals are to cherish freedom, they must experience it. The very concept of freedom assumes that people usually choose wisely from a range of available ideas and that the range and implications of ideas cannot be fully understood unless we hold vital our rights to know, to express, and to choose. The university must be a place where all ideas may be expressed freely and where no alternative is withheld from consideration. The only limits on these freedoms are those dictated by law and those necessary to protect the rights of other members of the University community and to ensure the normal functioning of the University.

In light of this strong commitment, students attending Carnegie Mellon can reasonably expect that their right to free expression will be every bit as robust as that enjoyed by their peers at public universities.

Now, we turn to the policies at Carnegie Mellon that impact students’ right to free expression, and explore how—if at all—those policies could be improved to even better protect free speech at CMU. The policy with the greatest need for improvement is the university’s sexual harassment policy. That policy tracks the language of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on sexual harassment, providing that sexual harassment is sexually oriented conduct that "has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment." While Carnegie Mellon has obviously made an effort to track the applicable standards of sexual harassment law with this policy, the fact is that the standards which appropriately govern sexual harassment in the workplace are inappropriate for the educational context, where speech should be far more unfettered. What this policy is missing, to properly adapt it to the educational context, is a requirement that the conduct be severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive (the standard for student-on-student harassment set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629, 652 (1999).)

Another policy with room for improvement is the Computing Policy, which prohibits "Using mail messages to harass or intimidate another person (such as by repeatedly sending unwanted mail or broadcasting unsolicited mail)." While an anti-spam regulation prohibiting the broadcast of unsolicited e-mail should not, under normal circumstances, pose a significant threat to free speech on campus, FIRE has recently seen—in the case of Michigan State University—that even a seemingly innocuous policy such as this can be abused to silence speech critical of the university administration (or controversial speech of any kind.) Therefore, we recommend that bulk e-mail guidelines be carefully drafted so as not to allow for an abuse of discretion like the one that happened at MSU. Carnegie Mellon’s Computing Policy, which prohibits spam only in general terms, could be vulnerable to this type of abuse, and thus should be further refined.

The Advertising Policy applicable to student organizations on campus would also benefit from minor revisions. That policy provides that posters/flyers whose content is deemed "excessively vulgar" by the Student Senate may result in disciplinary action against the responsible organization. The problem with this policy is that unlike "obscenity," which has an actual legal definition, "excessively vulgar" is undefined and its interpretation is left up to the student government. There may be instances in which flyers that someone might deem "excessively vulgar" should still be approved for posting on campus—for example, publicity for Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues, which includes a monologue entitled "Reclaiming Cunt." While the university can certainly prohibit genuinely obscene flyers from being posted on its campus, "excessively vulgar" is too vague, and should be revised.

While FIRE does not believe that these policies seriously imperil speech on Carnegie Mellon’s campus, we do believe that universities—even those with green-light ratings—should be constantly striving to come closer to the idea of a university that is, as Carnegie Mellon describes it, "a place where all ideas may be expressed freely and where no alternative is withheld from consideration." We hope that rather than resting on its green-light laurels, Carnegie Mellon will take seriously the recommendations contained here.

Stay tuned next week for information on the state of free speech at UC–Berkeley.

Schools: Carnegie Mellon University