University of Northern Iowa: We Will Not Punish Protected Speech

By October 29, 2008

FIRE recently named the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) our Speech Code of the Month for stating on its website that:

A bias incident is any inappropriate word or action directed toward an individual or group based upon actual or perceived identity characteristics or background of a group or person and that is contrary to law or policy. [...] The campus community takes great pride in promoting a healthy environment and will not tolerate bias or hate incidents.

Shortly thereafter, an administrator from UNI contacted FIRE to let us know that the document in question was not a policy but rather part of a protocol for how the university will respond to bias incidents. He assured FIRE that no student at UNI would ever be punished, or subjected to thought reform, for engaging in protected speech. Rather, he explained, if the "bias incident" in question involved only protected speech, UNI’s response would be "more speech"something along the lines of an e-mail to the campus community decrying the incident.

This is reassuring, given that UNI’s definition of a "bias incident" includes much protected speech. However, FIRE is still concerned that the university’s definition of a "bias incident," coupled with the statement that it "will not tolerate" such incidents, will have an impermissible chilling effect on free speech at UNI. While the document may not have been intended as a policy statement, students reading it could easily interpret it as such and refrain from engaging in otherwise protected expression.

Fortunately, the UNI administration shares FIRE’s concern and has assured FIRE that it is working to clarify the language on its bias incident reporting website to ensure that no student is led to believe that protected expression is prohibited. We look forward to seeing the revised website and will update Torch readers as soon as those revisions are complete.

Schools: University of Northern Iowa