Aaron Fried, columnist for Brandeis University’s independent student newspaper The Justice, kicks off the fall semester with a powerful column calling for revisions to his college’s speech codes. Given that his school is named after Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, a champion of free speech, Fried argues that he and his fellow students should be embarrassed by Brandeis’ inclusion on FIRE’s list of the 12 worst colleges for free speech, published in The Huffington Post in March.
Noting that several of Brandeis’ policies earn a "red light" ranking from FIRE, here’s Fried’s take on some of the problems presented to students wishing to speak their minds:
Unfortunately, other areas of our speech policies run contrary to these ideals, most notably, our harassment policies, which FIRE has red-lighted. These well-intended policies nominally fulfill the goal of promoting a respectful and orderly campus, where students can live without fear of being mistreated.
In reality, some of these policies are incredibly vague and, like any poorly defined set of rules, run the risk of unfair, subjective interpretation.
For example, the Handbook’s definition of sexual harassment is ambiguous. One example of sexual harassment is "subtle pressure for sexual activity." Imagine all of innocent situations that fit this bill. Flirting-in nearly any context-can certainly be taken as subtle pressure for sexual activity.
The same section on sexual harassment also prohibits "offensive sexual graffiti or cartoons" (doodlers, beware!), and "whistling, cat-calls [and] obscene gestures."
You might do all of these if you decide to be rowdy at a soccer game on Gordon Field. Are you sexually harassing the visiting team? Probably not, but we couldn’t be sure from the way this is written.
Wouldn’t it make a little bit of sense to put some clarity and specificity into these rules? Explicitly defined criteria allow rules to be enforced objectively, equivocal rules prevent that.
FIRE agrees entirely, and I commend Fried for his call for policy revisions. Fried’s full column is well worth your time. As he writes: "I am convinced that Brandeisians, like the man our school is named for, ardently value an atmosphere that cultivates intellectual openness, mutual respect and intelligent inquiry." I’m sure that’s absolutely correct-which is why Brandeis students deserve policies that reflect both their own respect for free speech and that of their university’s namesake.