University of Georgia Drops Last ‘Red Light’ Speech Code

By September 21, 2012

The University of Georgia (UGA) no longer receives a "red light" rating from FIRE after removing from its website an email policy that prohibited "profanity, obscenities, or derogatory remarks in electronic mail messages." This is the second red light policy that UGA has revised within the past two years; last August, the university revised a residence hall "acts of intolerance" policy after that policy came under criticism.

In a statement to UGA’s student paper, The Red and Black, UGA’s Vice President of Public Affairs claimed that FIRE’s rating was based on "old information," and that the email policy was in fact a draft that was never put into effect. The problem, if this is true, is that the document itself provided no clue to students and faculty that it was anything other than a binding policy. It had an "effective date" of January 1, 2005, and while it was labeled an "interim policy" (which is different, of course, from a draft-it implies that a new policy may supersede it, but that it is binding in the interim), it was still listed on the university’s website in 2011. So for at least six years, students following the link to UGA’s "email policy" would have found that document and restricted their speech accordingly.

But all that is history, as the university has now pulled that policy from its site and replaced it with an "Email and Electronic Messaging Security" policy that does not contain the troublesome language. While the email policy was UGA’s only red light policy, several "yellow light" speech codes remain, including a policy limiting spontaneous expressive activities to just two "free expression areas" on campus.

According to an editorial in yesterday’s Red and Black, UGA should not be satisfied with its yellow light rating but should instead reform all policies impermissibly restricting student expression:

But really, should we be content with a yellow light rating? 

There’s no point in arguing between two failing grades in a class: either way, the student fails. 

Correcting a blatant First Amendment violation is the start of change for a University administration long in the habit of ignoring transparency, sweeping issues under the rug and going after the wrong people for the wrong reasons (for example, scooter guy from two years ago) ["Playing with FIRE: Student's complaint to Parking Services leads to free speech questions," The Red & Black, 23 Sept. 2010]. 

Changing all the provisions that earn yellow and red light provisions is necessary to protect students, faculty and staff on campus from undeserved legal proceedings.

FIRE is encouraged by this call from UGA students for greater freedom of speech on campus. In the past two years, UGA has shown itself to be willing to revise its speech codes-therefore, it would be very exciting to see the university become FIRE’s next green light campus, and we join students there in asking for reform.

Schools: University of Georgia