NEWARK, Del., August 10, 2012—In violation of its legal and moral obligation to protect students’ First Amendment rights, the University of Delaware (UD) has adopted a prohibition on "bullying" that subjects students to punishment for constitutionally protected speech, including "teasing" or "ridiculing" other students.
"No one likes bullying, but most conduct that could be called bullying on the college level is already illegal. This policy goes much too far by prohibiting constitutionally protected speech," said Samantha Harris, Director of Speech Code Research for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
The policy, which FIRE has named "Speech Code of the Month" for August 2012, defines "bullying" as "[a]ny deliberately hurtful behavior, usually repeated over time, with the desired outcome of frightening, intimidating, excluding or degrading a person." Examples of bullying include "teasing," "ridiculing," and the "spreading of rumors." The broad wording of this policy makes it highly vulnerable to abuse, with the potential to silence a great deal of protected speech such as parody and satire (which often ridicule their targets) and political speech.
FIRE wrote to UD President Patrick Harker on June 29, asking him to abolish the unconstitutional policy. FIRE’s letter pointed out that virtually all conduct associated with "bullying"—such as harassment, threats, stalking, and intimidation—can already be punished under existing university policies and state and federal laws. "Beyond such conduct," FIRE wrote, "while the university is free to discourage offensive speech and expression that does not rise to the level of actual harassment or threats, it may not outright prohibit constitutionally protected speech simply because it hurts the feelings of college students." UD did not respond to FIRE’s letter.
UD’s new policy—and its silence in defending it—is particularly worrisome in light of the university’s history of shameful disregard for students’ rights. In 2007, FIRE exposed an ideological reeducation program in UD’s residence halls, where students were required to adopt specific, university-approved views on issues ranging from politics to race, sexuality, sociology, moral philosophy, and environmentalism. Students in the residence halls were required to attend training sessions as well as one-on-one sessions with their RAs where they were asked intrusive personal questions such as, "When did you discover your sexual identity?" At various points in the program, students were also pressured or even required to take actions that outwardly indicated their agreement with the university’s ideology, regardless of their personal beliefs. Internal documents referred to the lesson plans as "treatments" for students in the program.
UD scrapped the program following intense public pressure. But the fact that high-level UD administrators—still employed by the university—ever felt that such indoctrination was appropriate to begin with leaves FIRE with significant concerns over the university’s commitment to its students’ expressive rights.
"UD’s own history of error demonstrates precisely why students’ rights must be vigorously protected," Harris said. "A broad and vague policy like the one UD has now adopted is a violation of students’ First Amendment rights and an invitation to abuse by the public officials who run UD."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.