Free-Speech Advocates Challenge E-Mail Policies at Grambling State

September 22, 2010

Grambling State University, in responding to criticism of an e-mail policy that, it says, does not even exist, has ended up provoking a much bigger controversy over the policies it acknowledges having on the books.

In denying complaints by free-speech advocacy groups that it had imposed unconstitutional restrictions on its students’ use of its e-mail system for political speech, Grambling cited on Wednesday its policies governing the use of its e-mail system by its employees. The advocacy groups ended up objecting to those far more.

In a joint statement issued Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, known as FIRE, urged Grambling to immediately revise the e-mail policies it had cited. The groups argued that those policies violate Grambling employees’ First Amendment rights and threaten to chill speech on the campus by leaving employees at risk of being disciplined if others somehow find their e-mails offensive.

The controversy originated with an e-mail sent to Grambling students by the university’s media-relations office in July. It said: "Individuals who receive political campaign solicitations via university email are advised to delete these emails upon receipt. DO NOT FORWARD campaign solicitations using university email as this implies your support for the candidate and may be viewed as utilizing university resources for solicitation purposes, a violation of university and state policy."

Vanessa Littleton, a spokeswoman for the historically black public university, said on Wednesday that the purported student policy that the advocacy groups initially objected to was actually a directive to staff members that was accidentally distributed to students.

A student brought the media-relations office’s e-mail to the attention of FIRE, which challenged the policy the e-mail described in a letter to Grambling’s president, Frank G. Pogue. The letter, dated September 1, argued that the restriction described in the e-mail violates the First Amendment’s free-speech protections and goes beyond any limitations imposed by Louisiana law, which, FIRE said, does not limit the right of students or faculty members who are not classified employees to solicit political contributions from one another.

"With the elections just weeks away, Grambling must act now to restore its students’ and faculty members’ rights," Will Creeley, director of legal and public advocacy for FIRE, said in a statement issued last week.

Grambling did not respond to the letter from FIRE until Wednesday, when it issued a statement that said Grambling "does not prohibit students or employees from political expression."

The statement went on to quote the university’s formal e-mail policy for employees. It states that the e-mail system "shall not be used for the creation or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs, or national origin." The policy urges employees who receive any offensive e-mail with such content from another employee to "report the matter to their supervisor immediately," and goes on to say that employees also are forbidden from using Grambling’s e-mail system to send jokes or chain letters.

FIRE and the Louisiana ACLU responded with a statement leveling a host of criticisms at the cited policy. Among them, the statement said: "It is not clear what constitutes an ‘offensive message,’ nor how anyone will know whether someone else will take offense at any particular message." The statement adds, "Most ‘offensive messages’ are fully protected by the First Amendment," rendering the university’s prohibition "impermissibly overbroad and vague."

Along similar lines, the statement said, the university lacks any constitutional authority to ban e-mailed jokes, and its policy does not contain any clear definition of a joke or chain e-mail, "leaving students and faculty to guess at what content is and is not forbidden" and having "to ponder the sense of humor of each recipient."

The statement argues that, by relying on undefined or vague terms like "offensive," the university policy grants administrators there "unbridled discretion to censor or punish protected speech."

Ms. Littleton said the university did not yet have a response to the additional concerns that FIRE and the Louisiana ACLU have raised. She did say, however, that the university is reviewing the policies in question "to make sure they reflect the university’s intent."

Schools: Grambling State University Cases: Grambling State University: Ban on Core Political Expression