Franks on university free-speech policies

August 19, 2015

By Travis Arbon at The Arizona Republic

THE MEDIA: Internet

WHO SAID IT: Trent Franks

TITLE: U.S. representative, Arizona’s 8th Congressional District

PARTY: Republican

THE COMMENT: “According to a 2015 report published by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, 55% of the 437 colleges and universities they examined ‘maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.’”

THE FORUM: News release issued June 2

WHAT WE’RE LOOKING AT: Whether 55 percent of the colleges and universities examined in the study “maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.”

ANALYSIS: In an analysis of the speech-related policies of 437 universities and colleges, the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education, a non-partisan organization that advocates for more freedom of speech on college campuses, did find that 55 percent of the institutions had “policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.”

FIRE divided the schools in its study — 333 public and 104 private — into three categories: red-light, yellow-light and green-light. Red-light schools were determined to have at least one policy that “clearly and substantially” restricts freedom of speech; yellow-light schools have restrictions that are much narrower; green-light schools do not have a written policy that poses a “serious threat to free speech.”

The percentage of red-light ratings declined from 79 percent in the 2012-13 school year to 55 percent in 2013-2014.

The actual language and implementation of certain policies vary among universities, even within the same tier.

Arizona’s major public universities ran the gamut from red to green. Here’s an example of the harassment policies at NAU and ASU that demonstrates how FIRE evaluates statements for ratings.

NAU, red: “Harassment of an individual on the basis of that individual’s actual or perceived race, sex, age, color, national origin, religion, disability, veteran status or sexual orientation is also prohibited under this policy. Prohibited harassment includes, but is not limited to, stereotyping, negative comments or jokes, explicit threats, segregation, and verbal or physical assault when any of these are based upon a person’s race, sex, color, national origin, religion, age, disability, veteran status, or sexual orientation.”

ASU, green: “Actions constitute harassment if 1. they substantially interfere with another’s educational or employment opportunities, peaceful enjoyment of residence, or physical security, and 2. they are taken with a general intent to engage in the actions and with the knowledge that the actions are likely to substantially interfere with a protected interest…. Such intent and knowledge may be inferred from all the circumstances… Neither this nor any other university policy is violated by actions that amount to expression protected by the state or federal constitutions or by related principles of academic freedom.”

The difference between these policies is in the way they account for free speech.

ASU’s policy goes out of its way to account for constitutional protections. The NAU policy clearly identifies types of speech that are prohibited. In addition, it does not define negative jokes or stereotypes, leaving those terms to broad interpretation.

FIRE’s rating shows it determined the NAU policy goes beyond court-determined limits on obscenity, threats and harassment to curtail any form of offensive speech.

In addition to broad language that restricts speech, FIRE awards red ratings to schools that establish “free-speech zones” to confine demonstrations and protests to certain areas, as well as schools that require a username and password in order to view university policies.

BOTTOM LINE: Franks’ statement that 55 percent of the universities examined in the study were given a red-light rating, indicating that they have policies that “seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students,” is true.

The number of such schools is on the decline, according to the report, but still represents a large collection of colleges and universities. However, the individual policies that universities use vary. Not all red-light policies are red for the same reasons. Some may be more or less restrictive than others or restrict different kinds of speech in different ways.

THE FINDING: Four stars: true