University of Virginia reforms speech code

December 29, 2010

The University of Virginia has eliminated four controversial policies that restricted the free speech of students and faculty, becoming one of a minority of schools across the country to do so.

The recent decision to change the policies was led by Allen W. Groves, dean of students, who said he was alerted to the questionable policies last spring by Adam Kissel, vice president of an organization called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which aims to protect free speech on college campuses.

The changes made at UVa:

*Groves reformed the school’s "Just Report It!" "bias reporting" system to promise students that protected speech will not be "subject to university disciplinary action or formal investigation" even if it is reported.

*Shirley Payne, assistant vice president for information security, policy and records, removed unconstitutional language from a policy prohibiting Internet messages that "vilify" others and mailing list messages that are "inappropriate."

*The school’s Women’s Center removed two policies with unconstitutional examples of "sexual harassment" from its website.

The examples stated that "jokes of a sexual nature," "teasing," and even mere "innuendo" constituted sexual harassment.

The policies had further suggested that simple flirting could be sexual harassment if it was not "wanted and mutual," and that if a person felt "disrespected," their experience "could indicate sexual harassment."

Groves said protecting free speech at the university matters a great deal.

“We are pretty affectionate about Thomas Jefferson here,” he said, referring to UVa’s founder. “If any place ought to be protective of free speech and open discoure, it’s the University of Virginia.”

He said that while colleges and universities want to protect their students from “unpleasant and ugly situations,” they face the challenge of drawing a line between things that might be unpleasant but are protected speech, and things that are harassing and threatening that can be disciplined.

“The effort to protect against harassment sometimes goes too far,” he said.

More than two-thirds of the nation’s colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech, according to FIRE.

According to FIRE’s report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ free speech rights. That was a drop from 71 percent a year ago, but FIRE said it is concerned that a surge in restrictions may occur.

UVa now joins another public Virginia institution, The College of William & Mary, in a group of 13 schools recognized by FIRE as “green light” colleges and universities that have the best free-speech policies.

In Virginia, Kissel said his group is interested in persuading three more Virginia public universities — George Mason, James Madison and Virginia Tech — to change their free-speech policies.

Schools: University of Virginia