Four-Word Joke Results in Five Conduct Charges for University of Oregon Student
EUGENE, Oregon, August 26, 2014—The University of Oregon (UO) has filed multiple, blatantly unconstitutional conduct charges against a female student who jokingly yelled “I hit it first” from a dormitory window. The student, who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help. FIRE is calling on UO to immediately dismiss all charges against the student and reform its unconstitutional speech policies.
“The University of Oregon’s absurd overreaction is the real joke here, and it’s not very funny,” said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. “Using an unconstitutional speech code to punish a student for a joke shows how out of control censorship has become on our campuses in the name of making everyone feel ‘comfortable.’”
On June 9, 2014, the female student in question was visiting with friends in UO’s Carson Hall dormitory. According to the student, looking out of the dormitory window, she spotted a male and female student walking together (she did not know either of them) and shouted “I hit it first” at them in jest. The female of the couple responded with two profanities and the couple reported the student’s comment to the Resident Assistant of the dorm. The Resident Assistant located the student and insisted that she apologize to the couple for her remark. The student readily obliged.
That did not end the matter, however. On June 13, the student was shocked to receive a “Notice of Allegation” letter charging her with five separate conduct violations for her four-word joke. In addition to dubious allegations of violating the residence hall’s noise and guest policies, UO charged the student with “[h]arassment,” “disruption,” and “[d]isorderly conduct.” After being presented with these outrageous and unconstitutional charges, the student contacted FIRE.
FIRE wrote to UO President Michael Gottfredson on August 1, demanding that the charges against the student be dropped. FIRE also called on UO to revise its unconstitutional speech codes—in particular, the harassment policy under which it charged the student. That policy contains unconstitutionally broad and vague prohibitions on “[u]nreasonable insults,” “gestures,” and “abusive words” that may cause “emotional distress” to others, subjecting UO students to punishment for any expression deemed subjectively distressing. FIRE’s letter explained that Oregon courts have struck down state harassment laws containing similar prohibitions.
As FIRE noted, the Supreme Court has defined peer harassment in the educational setting as conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to effectively deprive the target of educational opportunities or benefits. The student’s isolated, four-word comment plainly fails to meet these criteria.
UO did not respond to FIRE’s August 1 letter. FIRE had also previously written to UO on June 5, urging the university to revise its unconstitutional speech codes. UO failed to respond to that letter as well.
“It is remarkable that the university apparently didn’t give a first thought to this student’s First Amendment rights before throwing the book at her and allowing these unconstitutional charges to hang over her head for the entire summer,” said Peter Bonilla, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Incoming and returning UO students should be aware of the lack of regard shown by the university for their right to free speech.”
FIRE has requested that UO immediately dismiss the charges, revise its unconstitutional speech codes, provide First Amendment training to its staff, and clarify to the UO community that it will not take action against constitutionally protected speech in the future.
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, 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.