Free-speech organization says ISU’s policies are too restrictive

By January 12, 2012

Iowa’s public universities have work to do to end suppressive speech policies according to a new report from an advocacy group devoted to free speech in academia.

Iowa State University, the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa all received "red light" ratings for their speech codes in the report from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released this month.

A red light rating, given to universities with one or more severely restrictive speech codes, was given to 65 percent of 392 schools surveyed in the yearly report. While the report shows a slight decline in red light schools from past years, it says a "new wave" of federal and state policies that strengthen limited speech codes is threatening free speech nationwide.

In an opinion piece published in the Washington Post earlier this month from Greg Lukianoff, the foundation’s president, he said many universities are now using overly broad speech codes that vaguely define harassment and discrimination to suppress other forms of protected speech.

For ISU, this year isn’t the first time the university has received a less than acceptable rating from FIRE based on this criticism.

Last year, the report targeted ISU’s harassment policies for citing jokes, pranks and derogatory comments based on an individual’s personal characteristics like race or sex as examples of harassment.

Under the foundation’s interpretation, harassment is "extreme and usually repetitive behavior so serious that it would interfere with a reasonable person’s ability to receive his or her education" that is "severe, pervasive and objectively offensive."

Adam Kissel, vice president of programs at FIRE, said the examples of harassment listed in ISU’s policy, particularly those related to sexual harassment, still don’t meet this standard.

"The kinds of things that college students normally do and say on campus are liable to get them in trouble," he said. "Obviously, assault is not protected but ‘unwelcome flirtation’ is something that happens all the time, right? You don’t know it’s unwelcome until you actually flirt with someone and then you find out. And ‘inappropriate put downs?’ Are we in fifth grade?"

But Keith Bystrom, associate legal council at ISU, said he disagrees.

"They didn’t like the fact that our policy provides examples," he said. "We just have a difference of opinions here. They think by putting in our examples we are putting in things that could be vague or could be interpreted in different ways. We think it helps students understand."

Kissel also criticized a line that says ISU’s policy "may cover those activities which, although not severe, persistent or pervasive enough to meet the legal definition of harassment, are unacceptable and not tolerated in an educational or work environment."

"That’s amazingly over broad," Kissel said. "Basically, the university is saying ‘We haven’t told you yet what you might have said or done, but if we think it’s inappropriate and unjust and even if it’s not severe, persistent or pervasive, we’re going to count it anyway.’"

Some of ISU’s other policies, including one that designates certain areas on campus as "free speech zones," received a "yellow light" rating, or one that could be interpreted to suppress speech.

That policy, which pertains to members of the ISU community who want to use certain campus areas for "expressive activities," requires large groups to file a notice of intent and receive approval as far as three days in advance of a demonstration.

Despite this policy, Bystrom said, "Anything can happen spontaneously in areas we’ve designated as free speech zones."

The recent Occupy ISU protests, for example, could take place at an area near the Campanile or the Hub under ISU’s policy. If a group of more than 50 people wanted to bring the protest to the doors of Beardshear Hall, however, they would need permission from the university.

An unfair rating?

Michael Bugeja, director of ISU’s Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication, said he was "disappointed" by this year’s red light rating.

He mentioned ISU’s annual First Amendment Day Celebration and said the report made no mention of the week-long event dedicated to promoting free speech on campus.

"We had a representative of FIRE complimenting us on our First Amendment Day Celebration (last year), and I don’t see that mentioned in the report," he said. "I would encourage a review of our red light rating in light of all the activities we put on concerning the First Amendment."

Bugeja, who contributes regularly to "The Chronicle of Higher Education" and the web-based publication "Inside Higher Ed," said ISU’s speech policies have not affected him personally.

"Nobody has ever told me not to write about things that matter. In fact, I have been encouraged and at times counseled by my superiors," he said. "When you read the FIRE report, it really looks like it’s focusing on policy, but there are several other aspects to the First Amendment that I enjoy personally as a journalist and professionally as a journalism educator."

Despite the rating, "the measure of the strength of the First Amendment" is best defined by students being able to express their opinions openly on campus, said Kelsey Kremer, president of ISU’s Society of Professional Journalists chapter.

Kremer, who is active in planning ISU’s annual First Amendment Day Celebration, said it’s reasonable for the university to place some restrictions to prevent riots or other disturbances.

"It would be nice if the entire campus was considered a free speech zone and we didn’t have a red light rating, but I think people can still express their opinion," she said. "I certainly think it could be much worse."

Schools: Iowa State University