Syracuse University (SU) College of Law student Zachary Greenberg has inspired his peers to take a significant step toward revising an unconstitutional speech code: the university’s overbroad and vague policy on online harassment.
SU’s only “red light” policy (that is, one that clearly and substantially restricts constitutionally protected speech) prohibits using the university computer system to send “annoying, abusive, profane, threatening, defamatory or offensive messages,” and it was named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for September 2013. Armed with policy analysis from FIRE, Greenberg has introduced a student government resolution that would replace the terms “annoying” and “offensive” with more specific language tracking the categories of speech unprotected by the First Amendment, including “threats of violence, obscenity, child pornography and harassing communications as defined by law.” Last week, SU’s Student Association passed the resolution, a positive first step for policy change at Syracuse.
The editorial board of the student newspaper The Daily Orange has written to urge the university to adopt the change into the Student Code of Conduct, and FIRE wholeheartedly agrees. As FIRE’s Azhar Majeed noted in speaking with The Daily Orange, “Even though Syracuse is a private institution, it promises its students free speech rights and then those promises are violated by having a policy such as this one.” Indeed, SU has clearly committed itself in official policy to the free exchange of ideas:
Syracuse University is committed to the principle that freedom of discussion is essential to the search for truth and, consequently, welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent.
Azhar went on to explain the effect that vague policies can have on free expression on campus, and the Daily Orange editorial board echoed this idea yesterday:
Without harassment clearly defined, students could be hesitant or uncomfortable voicing their opinions online for fear of discipline from the university. The unclear policy could potentially limit free speech by making students afraid to say what they actually believe, especially if they have controversial opinions.
Students who are familiar with FIRE’s work know that the potential for punishment by SU is not hypothetical. In 2011, for example, former student Matthew Werenczak was expelled from the university for remarks he made on Facebook that elsewhere would have been fully protected by the First Amendment. SU readmitted Werenczak after FIRE wrote to the university and publicized the case. And in 2010, then-student Len Audaer was investigated for harassment and threatened with expulsion for publishing an Onion-style satirical blog about the law school. As in Werenczak’s case, SU backed down only after significant negative publicity from FIRE. (Check out FIRE’s videos on the two cases to hear from Werenczak and Audaer themselves.)
Particularly given SU’s history, FIRE would be thrilled to see the university revise its “red light” speech code and improve to an overall “yellow light” rating. Greenberg’s proposal is right on: The best way to ensure student speech is fully protected is to simply borrow a page from First Amendment jurisprudence and limit punishable speech to that which the Supreme Court has held is punishable under the law.