By Conor Morris at The Athens News
Ohio University has released a number of proposed updates to its Student Code of Conduct, part of which was challenged earlier this year by a federal lawsuit from a student who charged that the Code of Conduct violated students’ First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit by Isaac Smith, a fifth-year senior at OU, charges that university officials illegally and unconstitutionally ordered students at the Campus Involvement Fair in late August, 2013, to stop wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “We Get You Off for Free,” claiming it was offensive.
The lawsuit was coordinated by national group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which previously gave a “red” speech code rating to OU’s Student Code of Conduct. This means that the university has at least one policy that substantially restricts freedom of speech.
Prior to the university’s release of the proposed changes, Smith’s lawsuit challenged multiple sections of the Student Code of Conduct, including Section A in the code, which states that “any act that demeans, degrades or disgraces any person” is punishable by the university. Section B of the code states that “failure to comply with legitimate directives from university officials could also result in punishment for students.”
The new proposed version of the code, which was open to student comment until Wednesday last week, would get rid of the Code A/B designations. As it stands, Code A violations are more serious violations that could result in expulsion or suspension, whereas Code B violations are less serious and cannot result in those severe sanctions.
Smith said previously that both clauses, as well as a number of others within the Code of Conduct, were overly broad and had the potential to chill free expression of ideas on campus.
Ryan Lombardi, OU’s vice president for student affairs, said in an email Friday that the code changes did not result from Smith’s lawsuit; rather, they reflect needed quality-of-life updates to the Student Code of Conduct.
“Our primary focus with changing the code was updating it to meet today’s students and the issues of our campus,” he said. “We are aware of how FIRE viewed our old code, but that is not what precipitated this change. The change began last year in earnest. The primary focus on this is having a code that students understand and is fair while also placing emphasis on what we believe are important standards to have as a member of the Ohio University community.”
According to the OU Board of Trustees’ August agenda, overall violations of the Student Code of Conduct were up in the 2013-2014 year. There were 2,402 violations in the 2013-2014 academic year, and 2,127 in 2012-2013. Code A violations for 2013-2014 were 561, compared to 634 Code A violations in 2012-2013. Conversely, Code B violations rose to 1,469 in 2013-2014 from 1,157 in 2012-2013.
Martha Compton, director of community standards and student responsibility at OU, said that the proposed Code of Conduct changes were designed to make the process more transparent to students.
“It (current code of conduct) is really confusing, and very hard for students to know what they’re charged with, particularly in terms of alcohol intoxication,” she said.
There are a few major areas of proposed changes to the Code of Conduct to note, according to an overview of the code on OU’s website:
• General clarity: removes all references to “mental or physical harm to self” and clarifies what “harm to others” means. Also specifies that “the free-speech protections students have and have explicitly stated in several areas that the Code will not be used to discipline the lawful expression of ideas.”
• Removed A/B designations in code, to “more accurately prepare students for the potential outcomes of their behavior.” Compton said the current A/B systems gives students the impression that they could be expelled or suspended for their violation of the Code of Conduct, which is generally only the case in about 7 percent of code violations. The proposed code changes state, “… over 40 percent of students were told suspension/expulsion were possibilities, simply based on the ‘level’ of the violation. That means approximately 919 students for whom suspension was never a possibility were at least temporarily told that was a possibility.”
• Restructuring the appeals process. Students currently have two levels of appeal in a Code of Conduct violation case. The second level of appeal, where Lombardi decides on a case-by-case basis whether a case merits further review, will be removed as an option for cases that do not have the possibility of suspension/expulsion.
• Change in the possible length of a student’s suspension. Currently, the code restricts the length a student can be suspended to a year at max. The only other option is expulsion. The proposed change would allow more flexibility in terms of suspension sentences – so a student could be suspended for multiple years in certain cases.
Compton said the proposed change in possible length of a student’s suspension was made with interpersonal violence and sexual assault on campus in mind.
“We’d like to have the option that their victim finish (school) without that person being on campus,” she said. “You have to petition to re-enroll, such that if you can show us that you’re ready to come back, and this person (victim) has graduated – that threat is gone – maybe we’d at least be able to have you back (on campus).”
Lombardi said that there’s no reason for students to fear the proposed Code of Conduct changes because many students have been involved in the process of updating the code in the first place.
“We held open forums last year, solicited feedback over the summer, utilized the advice of Students Defending Students (SDS), and had the code posted for public comment for a full week,” Lombardi said. “In short, student feedback has been ample and well-received in this process. I would also encourage additional feedback if it remains; we are always open to hearing suggestions.”
Lombardi confirmed Sunday that OU will examine feedback in the next two weeks before determining a timeline for approving the proposed Student Code of Conduct changes.