UGA Professor Calls for School to Reform Speech Codes in ‘Atlanta Journal-Constitution’

By March 21, 2011

For University of Georgia (UGA) journalism professor William E. Lee, UGA’s decision to review its current Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy is a step in the right direction. Not so that the screws can be tightened on free speech, as is too often the case, but so that UGA officials can put the policy in line with the First Amendment.

In his guest column in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Lee reminds readers that "UGA’s current anti-harassment provisions lack the precision the U.S. Supreme Court requires for the regulation of speech, ‘our most precious’ freedom," and points out that "UGA’s policies are as flawed as the infamous University of Wisconsin and University of Michigan policies federal courts found to be unconstitutionally vague and overbroad."

Lee is also keen to the fact (as are we at FIRE) that adding "bullying" to the list of prohibited offenses at UGA would further muddy the waters:

But last month’s revelation that student affairs officials want to add "bullying" to the anti-harassment section of the conduct code will further muddy an already-unclear provision.

UGA’s current policies are rife with ambiguous terms such as "verbal abuse" and "harassment," terms courts have found "can mean anything." Vague laws create a chilling effect by failing to provide people with a clear sense of the line between legal and illegal activity. Vague laws are also susceptible to arbitrary enforcement. As the judge in the Michigan case found, the university was "essentially making up the rules as it went along." [Link added.]

Jacob Lovell’s case last fall also gives Lee a close-to-home example to hammer home the vagaries of college speech codes and the chilling effect they engender. Torch readers hopefully remember Lovell’s case: Lovell sent a frustrated and mocking email to UGA’s Parking Services department to complain about the availability of scooter parking facilities. Hours later, he was notified by Parking Services that his email had been referred to the UGA administration. A couple of weeks later, Associate Dean of Students Kimberly Ellis sent Lovell a letter charging him with "disorderly conduct" for sending a "threatening" email.

Lee adds:

After receiving Ellis’ letter, Lovell wrote on Facebook that the Student Judiciary held his future in its hands, and he was willing to "tuck my tail between my legs and take it" just to complete his education.

By coincidence, Lovell’s Facebook posting was seen by an official at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free speech advocacy group, who then wrote to President Adams that UGA’s investigation was an infringement of the First Amendment.

Ellis dropped the case after FIRE intervened. But given Lovell’s willingness to accept punishment, one wonders what would have happened if FIRE had not intervened.

Indeed, with cases like this in mind, the risks inherent to UGA in adding "bullying" to the list of prohibited behaviors in its conduct code should be apparent. To rejoin the push by many schools to add such untenable policies to their books, Lee points to the recent examples set by The College of William & Mary, the University of Virginia, and Arizona State University in revising their unconstitutional policies to receive FIRE’s highest, green-light rating. "UGA should join these schools instead of continuing to inhibit free speech," he concludes. FIRE is more than happy to help.

Do read the whole of Lee’s excellent column. Hopefully it will be read by UGA’s senior administration, too.

Schools: University of Georgia Cases: University of Georgia: Student Faces Charges for Complaint about Parking Services