At UVa, Bias is Reportable, but Not Always Punishable

September 15, 2010

2010 FIRE Intern Ginny Robinson takes on her school, the University of Virginia (UVa), for administrative overreach in a column in the student newspaper, The Cavalier Daily, entitled “Big brother is watching.” Her primary target is the school’s recent “netbadge initiative,” which requires students to disclose all previous arrests to the university before logging on to their UVa e-mail accounts and then all future arrests within 72 hours.

Of greater interest to FIRE, she also wrote against the school’s bias reporting website, “Just Report It!”, in which:

[t]he University encourages prompt reporting of bias complaints so that it can investigate the alleged facts for possible violation(s) of University policy, including the Standards of Conduct, and refer such complaints to law enforcement to determine whether an independent investigation for violation(s) of criminal law is warranted.

“There is an air of big brother in all of this mandatory and voluntary reporting the University has encouraged recently,” Ginny observes. She makes a good point. To its credit, the university does make it clear that uttering a biased comment is not necessarily in itself a violation of university policy. In fact, the “Just Report It!” website goes on to say:

Although the expression of an idea or point of view may be offensive or inflammatory to some, it is not necessarily a violation of law or University policy. The University values and embraces the ideals of freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression, all of which must be vitally sustained in a community of scholars.

Dean of Students Allen W. Groves, in a public statement about the new policy, also emphasized that biased comments are not necessarily punishable, adding that:

… [O]ur founder Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “For here we are not afraid … to tolerate error so long as reason is free to combat it.”

These are both necessary clarifications of the policy and affirmations of the university’s role in protecting free speech. Moreover, as Torch readers may remember, we recently praised UVa for revising its bias reporting policy to remove the most troubling aspects. Those revisions addressed unconstitutional language in the old policy—to which we objected due to the prohibition of protected speech—and UVa is to be commended for making the changes.

There are still a few policies left to be ironed out at UVa, though. “The Just Report It!” website states:

While these freedoms protect controversial ideas and differing views, and sometimes even offensive and hurtful words, they do not protect personal threats or acts of misconduct which violate criminal law or University policy. (Emphasis added.)

This boilerplate statement would be unexceptional at a green-light university with full protections of freedom of speech. At the moment, the University of Virginia is still a red-light school where, if a student feels disrespected by another student’s sexual joke or comment, the speaker could be in violation of university policy, in this case the UVa Women’s Center’s policies on sexual harassment. The Womens’ Center policies still have a long way to go before they’re fully in line with the First Amendment. Thankfully, Dean Groves has shown us that the steps to make the necessary changes are simple. Hopefully the university will continue down the path he has started.

Schools:  University of Virginia