In a resounding victory for free speech, the University of Oklahoma (OU) has rescinded a September statement that banned the use of university e-mail accounts to engage in protected political expression. The reversal is a welcome confirmation of the First Amendment right of OU students, faculty, and staff to engage in protected political expression during this exciting election season and beyond.
Here’s the timeline: On September 12, Nicholas S. Hathaway, Executive Vice President and Vice President of Administration and Finance, sent an e-mail to all University of Oklahoma students, faculty, and staff, informing them that university e-mail accounts "may not be used to endorse or oppose a candidate, including the forwarding of political humor/commentary." Hathaway’s e-mail, while acknowledging that the university community may engage in "limited personal use" of university e-mail accounts, stated that even personal use "may not include political issues outside of the educational context as it places the University at risk of losing its tax exempt status."
In response, FIRE wrote OU President David L. Boren a letter on September 26, informing him that this ban violated the First Amendment rights of OU students, faculty, and staff. We wrote:
If what the university intended to do was to prevent state university employees from creating the appearance that the university endorses a particular political candidate, it has wildly overshot. While it is true that colleges are required because of their tax-exempt status or status as government agencies not to, for example, endorse a candidate, it is simply absurd to argue that any partisan political speech in which employees or students engage using their e-mail accounts can be banned. Indeed, by placing such a blanket restriction on political speech, the University of Oklahoma is in clear violation of its legal obligation to uphold the First Amendment on campus.
Boren responded to FIRE on October 13, clarifying Hathaway’s statement. Boren wrote that OU "in no way intended for the e-mail to reflect a stifling of any individual’s rights to First Amendment [sic] or its freedoms." Boren also made clear that the "personal use" of university e-mail accounts was not intended to be restricted; rather, Boren explained, the e-mail meant only "to reflect that to the extent discussions are attributable to the University as endorsing or opposing a political candidate, those activities are prohibited." Despite communicating this substantive clarification to FIRE, however, neither Boren nor Hathaway saw fit to send a similar clarification to the OU community to correct Hathaway’s September 12 statement.
Finally, Boren issued a university-wide clarification yesterday evening. It’s worth quoting in full:
Dear OU Community,
On September 12th an email was sent to the OU community regarding the use of our email system for political purposes. Since that time several people have inquired about the meaning of the email. I applaud those who asked the questions about this policy which was worded to make it appear overly restrictive. I am encouraged by the vigilance of members of the OU family in defense of free expression.
A university should always be a free marketplace of ideas. In addition a university has a duty to vigorously protect and defend individual freedom including the first amendment right of free speech and the right of free inquiry.
The policy has been clarified to those who have raised questions. I felt that in addition it should be clarified to the entire university community. The email of September 12th is hereby rescinded and withdrawn. Individual free speech by all members of the university community is fully protected. The earlier email was intended to remind all of us that no one should presume to speak on behalf of the university in a way that would imply that the university, as an institution, is supporting a political candidate, party or cause. This, however, does not limit the right of anyone to express individual views.
In addition, taxpayer funded public property should not be used to raise funds for a particular political candidate, party, or partisan cause.
I hope this message will clarify any earlier misunderstanding and will underline our university’s commitment to individual freedoms.
David L. Boren
We at FIRE are pleased that OU has corrected its mistake by reaffirming, in no uncertain terms, the First Amendment rights of students, faculty, and staff to engage in political expression. Additionally, we urge all students, faculty, and staff at public and private schools to check out our recently released Policy Statement on Political Activity on Campus, a comprehensive guide to your right to engage in political expression on campus.