Yesterday afternoon, FIRE sent a letter to Mark Yudof, president of the University of California (UC) System, urging him to reform the “systemwide intolerance report form” in order to protect freedom of speech on the ten campuses of the UC system.
Like so many bias reporting protocols, the UC system’s “Campus Climate” page defines reportable incidents to include large amounts of protected speech. For example, the page defines “expressions of bias” as “a general communication not directed toward a particular individual, which disparages a group of people on the basis of some characteristic”—a definition so broad that it could include almost anything that another person finds offensive.
While the policy does not specify whether all such incidents are punishable, even the threat of an investigation is sufficient to impermissibly chill protected speech. As we wrote in our letter,
It is insufficient to say that the Campus Climate policy provides only for the investigation, not the punishment, of protected speech. When the only conduct alleged is protected speech, the act of investigation threatens the First Amendment rights of the person being investigated. See Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 245, 248 (1957) (noting that government investigations “are capable of encroaching upon the constitutional liberties of individuals” and have an “inhibiting effect in the flow of democratic expression”).
Compounding the problem, the Campus Climate policy explicitly incorporates the individual UC campuses’ “Principles of Community,” many of which contain their own restrictions on speech protected by the First Amendment. UC Davis, for example, recently invoked its Principles of Community in punishing a medical student for his lack of “courtesy” over email.
We requested a response from President Yudof by June 5, and we will keep you posted as to any developments. In the meantime, any university with a bias reporting protocol would do well to review that protocol to ensure that it does not infringe on students’ free speech rights.