Burning questions as to what constitutes free speech on campus sparked a recent change to Florida Gulf Coast University’s student code of conduct.
It’s not because the institution was feeling the heat from a First Amendment protection group, though, a university official said, but out of a need to update its policies to keep with the times.
In April 2007, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, published a report on its Web site, www.thefire.org, deeming the university’s personal abuse policy unconstitutional and demanding changes to it.
Now, one year later, FGCU has redefined that policy, but other similarly worded policies remain, keeping the university under FIRE’s, well, fire. The biggest problem with FGCU’s policies, according to the organization, is its use of unclear and overly broad terms, which leave room for a wide interpretation and, consequentially, confusion among students.
"I came here and said, ‘We need to fix this.’ I don’t know why they didn’t change it before I got here," said FGCU Vice President of Student Affairs Mike Rollo, who has worked for the university for two years.
In its initial complaint, FIRE attacked FGCU’s definition of personal abuse under the university’s non-discrimination policy and complaint procedures, particularly a part that said students were prohibited from engaging in "expressions deemed inappropriate." FIRE director Samantha Harris, who authored the statement, questioned who got to determine what was inappropriate, ultimately writing: "The policy is so vague and so broad that it cannot be enforced across the board, so it will necessarily be enforced arbitrarily."
FGCU unaware of FIRE
University administrators have since changed the policy to further define personal abuse so that it now prohibits "violence, threat of violence or disregard of potential harm to others or against oneself or actions which endanger any member or guest of the university community, including physical, verbal or sexual assault and relationship/domestic violence."
Rollo hadn’t been contacted by FIRE and didn’t know of their concerns before being interviewed. The changes weren’t a result of their prodding but actually just part of the university’s periodic review of its policies, he said.
"You write a policy 10 years ago and it makes sense at the time, but over time things change – court cases occur that challenge similar policies at other schools, causing you to look at your policies – and you revise them as needed," he said. "Codes of conduct evolve over time."
Though FIRE largely approved of the policy change, the group hasn’t removed its "red light" status on the university, the poorest mark on FIRE’s "spotlight" scale, which rates how restrictive a college is on students’ right to free speech. Two other policies that remain in effect prevent FGCU from scoring better, Harris wrote.
An ‘annoying’ term
One such policy describes electronic and telephone harassment as various forms of communication that are "annoying, abusive, excessive, threatening or obscene." Upheld by the university’s Office of Housing and Residence Life, this rule identifies the forms of communication – phone calls, instant messages, e-mails and posts on blogs, or social networking Web sites like Facebook and Myspace, among other media – but it doesn’t clarify what constitutes "annoying," "excessive" or any of the other terms.
"I think it’s annoying when people alternate between capital and lowercase letters in their e-mails. Is that annoying enough?" said physical therapy graduate student Christy Martin, 24. "That policy just sounds so vague."
Brandie Redman, 34, was eating lunch with Martin and also began questioning the policy’s wording.
"I think it’s annoying when I get a bunch of e-mails from campus groups that don’t interest me. Could they be punished for that?" she said. "They need to make (the definition) more specific."
Without clearer terms, it’s difficult to determine what could get a person in trouble, they said, which is exactly why FIRE targeted the policy in its follow-up report on the university, which was issued in early June.
Rollo said he wasn’t aware that the description included the word "annoying," and said he’d meet with the director of Housing and Residence Life to review the policy and determine whether any changes are necessary.
"That’s a problematic word – ‘annoying’ is too vague, I think," Rollo said. "Annoying somebody is not very nice, but it’s not something to punish somebody for. We have to review this and ask ourselves, ‘What is the purpose of what we’re trying to do here?’ and say, ‘If that’s not the right terminology, what is?’ "
Part of the struggle is determining what’s broad enough to encompass various forms of harassment without being so unclear that it leaves room to be abused, or makes students feel uncomfortable sharing their thoughts, Rollo said.
Follow the leader
Some students think FGCU should look to how it changed its personal abuse policy when reviewing the phrasing of its electronic and telephone harassment definitions.
"That’s a good example of what should happen. It’s clear, concise and more detailed, and it still protects students." said Evan Wyss, 20, a humanities major at the University of Central Florida, who was visiting his brother, Kyle Wyss, an incoming freshman at FGCU.
Though he didn’t think he’d ever get into a situation where he’d need to worry about these policies, environmental studies major Kyle Wyss, 18, agreed with his brother, saying the initial policy change was a good move.
FIRE fears chilling effect
The other policy FIRE took issue with also involved the definition of harassment, this time under the Equal Opportunity and Diversity Affairs’ non-discrimination policy and complaint procedures. It defines harassment as including "offensive or demeaning language or treatment of an individual, where such language is based typically on prejudicial treatment."
In FIRE’s statement, Harris argued that terms such as "offensive" and "demeaning," without further clarification, could have a chilling effect on students, making them afraid to speak their minds on campus. Rollo said he couldn’t find the exact wording FIRE describes, but said he was looking into it.
In every report of harassment at FGCU, the university looks critically at the claims being made and engages in discussions with all parties involved to determine whether harassment has occurred, rather than placing all judgment in the hands of an administrator who’s only heard one side of the story, he said.
"We’re very conscious of what students rights are and what they can do," Rollo said. "Human behavior is vague; it’s not an absolute thing. … We try to find the common ground and determine how to best apply it in an educational environment."
Schools: Florida Gulf Coast University