University of Georgia’s ‘Awful History of Infringing Upon Speech’

By on September 30, 2011

In a well-written column for the student newspaper The Red and Black, University of Georgia (UGA) sophomore Jonathan Klein analyzes UGA’s shortcomings in protecting students’ right to freedom of expression, concluding that the university’s free speech zones, in particular, are "incompatible with the First Amendment." Klein’s piece is a reminder to UGA students and administrators alike that UGA must stop violating the First Amendment in both policy and practice.

Klein’s column targets the free speech zones created by UGA’s Policy on Freedom of Expression (.pdf):

[T]he University has an awful history of infringing upon speech that should be protected. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which evaluates schools’ compliance with the First Amendment, gave the University’s speech policy a ‘red light’, meaning that at least some of its speech policies "clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech." That rating ranks among the worst in the country. 
[...]
Looking at the University’s Freedom of Expression policy, it’s not very difficult to find examples of poorly-worded restrictions that appear incompatible with the First Amendment. Take this innocuous-sounding statement: "[Some] areas of the campus … are occasionally used for speeches and demonstrations. Such campus gatherings must be approved … at least 48 hours in advance and receive a permit for the gathering." This clause can serve as a limitation on speech by groups of people; more importantly, it can allow the University to engage in prior review (or censorship) of speech before that speech is even made. That idea of prior censorship is absolutely incompatible with the First Amendment.

This is correct. By mandating this type of prior review, UGA not only reserves a lot of discretion for itself, but it also impedes much student speech and expressive activity, including protests, rallies, and demonstrations on matters of global and local significance. The policy especially impacts spontaneous gatherings for expressive purposes, as these are not possible under a rule requiring 48 hours’ notice. Yet spontaneous expression is a necessary part of the free exchange of ideas, as students often will not know ahead of time that they will be reacting to immediate or unfolding events.

It is worth noting here that UGA’s "red light" speech code rating, to which Klein refers, is due to the university’s Email Policy (.pdf). While the Policy on Freedom of Expression, which has a "yellow light" rating, is bad enough, the Email Policy prohibits email users from using "profanity, obscenities, or derogatory remarks in electronic mail messages." That’s a stunningly overbroad policy under the First Amendment, as almost all speech that is merely "derogatory," or that uses "profanity" or "obscenities" (which presumably refers to swear words and not to actual obscenity, as that term is narrowly defined under the law), is entitled to constitutional protection. 

Klein also draws attention to an interesting incident at UGA from earlier this year:

Generally, the Courts view reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions as lawful. For those Mississippi State fans planning to blast cowbells at 4 a.m., that’s probably not acceptable. However, when the Young Americans for Liberty displayed a national debt clock on the sidewalk outside of the Miller Learning Center in April, they were informed by a University employee that they had to move, because they were demonstrating outside of the University’s designated free-speech zones. That was plain silly.

It may have been silly, but I can’t say that it was entirely surprising given UGA’s tendency to squelch student speech. Just ask Jacob Lovell, who was famously charged with "disorderly conduct" and "disruption" last year for a joking email he sent to UGA’s Parking Services. Or ask the students in UGA’s residence halls who saw police reports filed for "acts of intolerance" for such expression as "Dick and Sideboob" written on a student’s dry erase board (that might be crass, but who does it fail to tolerate?).

Put simply, the University of Georgia has shown itself to be poor on students’ free speech rights in terms of both policy and practice. Hopefully Klein’s column, and other efforts like it, will spark some much-needed reform on UGA’s campus.    

Schools: University of Georgia