University of Tennessee Acts to Preserve Free Speech on Campus

By on April 22, 2010

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville (UTK), one of only a handful of schools to receive FIRE’s most favorable "green light" rating for protecting free speech on campus, acted quickly after being contacted by FIRE to revise a new policy that posed a serious threat to student speech. As a result, UTK remains one of FIRE’s "green light" institutions. The university is to be commended for being so responsive to concerns about free expression on campus.

In February, FIRE learned that UTK’s policy on Acceptable Use of Information Technology Resources had been revised to include a prohibition on "Engag[ing] in activities that harass, degrade, intimidate, demean, slander, defame, interfere with, or threaten others." As we wrote in a letter to UTK President Jimmy Cheek, this policy was unconstitutionally overbroad since most "demeaning" or "degrading" speech is still protected by the First Amendment—which UTK, a public university, is obligated to uphold.

This week, the university’s Assistant General Counsel wrote to notify us that the policy had been fully revised to eliminate that provision. The newly revised policy now appropriately prohibits "Engag[ing] in activities that violate state or federal law, a University contractual obligation, or another University policy or rule including but not limited to Human Resources policies and Standards of Conduct for students." Regrettably, UTK’s Assistant General Counsel noted in his letter that UTK still believed the old policy to be "constitutionally defensible." Nevertheless, actions speak louder than words, and the university did take quick and thorough action to change the policy following FIRE’s letter.

FIRE is pleased that we can continue to count UTK among our "green light" schools. We wish that all administrations were so responsive to free speech concerns. FIRE’s list of "green light" institutions recently grew when The College of William & Mary eliminated all of its speech codes, and we hope that other institutions will follow these examples so that our list can continue to grow and students will be able to fully exercise their rights on campus.

Schools: University of Tennessee – Knoxville