Former FIRE Intern Works to Reform Repressive Policies at College of William and Mary

April 25, 2008

Braum Katz, a 2007 summer intern at FIRE and student at the College of William and Mary, is working to improve the free speech polices there, reports The Virginia Informer. As Student Assembly Undersecretary of Student Rights for Free Speech Advocacy, Braum has sent four proposals for the improvement of school policies to the William and Mary administration. Administrators have agreed to put his proposals on their summer retreat agenda.

Braum hopes that his efforts will turn the College of William and Mary, which currently has a FIRE Spotlight rating of "red light" for having "at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech," into a "green light" institution. The Virginia Informer describes FIRE’s green light rating:

A very prestigious designation awarded by FIRE…a green light denotes campus policies regarding freedom of speech that are in accordance with the Constitution, Supreme Court decisions and other laws.

Braum’s proposals seek to reform William and Mary’s harassment codes, policies on discrimination, and campus distribution and posting restrictions. Harassment codes at many universities define harassment as hinging on the arbitrary and subjective feelings of the allegedly harassed person instead of following the legal definition of harassment: conduct which is "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit."

"People have the right not to be harassed," Mr. Katz says, "but we need to use the legal definition of harassment and not overstep our bounds… (They) have the right not to be threatened; they do not have the right not to be insulted."

Regarding speech restrictions, the Supreme Court has determined that to be constitutional, time, place or manner restrictions must be reasonable and narrowly tailored to serve a legitimate government interest. As Braum says, "I understand and support reasonable time, place and manner restrictions. People’s education should not be interrupted. A rock concert outside a classroom interferes with people’s learning. But we should make these restrictions as least restrictive as possible."

According to The Virginia Informer, the Student Handbook currently requires that "requests for demonstrations, rallies, vigils, and distribution of materials must be made in writing to the Office of Student Activities at least 48 hours in advance of the event with specific location… The College reserves the right to impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions upon such expressions." The Handbook seems to define "reasonable" rather loosely. Braum sees his proposal regarding "time, place and manner" regulations as the most urgent because such policies restrict the distribution of materials on campus and severely limit the free exchange of ideas. Current university policy, for instance, prohibits distribution on the University Center terrace, a hub of campus activity. Braum is trying to get that changed. The terrace is a place "where ideas should be disseminated and shared."

The Virginia Informer weighed in quite positively on Braum’s efforts:

Freedom of speech is an individual right that is at the very heart of this nation. Such freedoms are something to be treasured in universities, where new ideas are the lifeblood of the academic world. Currently, many within the William and Mary administration seem to understand the inherent worth of allowing free speech on campus. But there are more steps that need to be taken to ensure this is maintained and expanded. The first step must be to reform our speech code, transitioning us from a "red light" to a "green light" university, as awarded by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

The Virginia Informer strongly advocates for the implementation of these proposals. By reforming our code, we will prevent any future abuses of limiting speech. Furthermore, if we improve our code and receive a "green light" designation from FIRE, our College will join the ranks of other select universities which have proven their dedication to the defense of liberty. These changes will guarantee the free exchange of ideas and continued presence of differing opinions. It is without reservation that The Virginia Informer advocates for the preservation of freedom of speech at William and Mary by implementing these reforms.

Thanks to The Virginia Informer for its attention and its vigilance.