UC Davis Forces Students To Agree With Their Views On ‘Harmful Language’ Before They Can Sign Up For Classes

November 19, 2014

By Ashley Dobson at Red Alert Politics

The University of California Davis is now requiring its students to complete  a mandatory “Violence Intervention & Prevention” online program, which requires them to agree with the school’s stance on what constitutes “harmful language,” before they are allowed to register for classes.

The issue? All of the language included in the program is constitutionally protected.

The program consists of a series of slides relating to sexual assault and stalking. It includes a section on “Harmful Language”  where students much match words/phrases with why they are problematic.” There is no option for students to argue that the phases aren’t problematic or even to add a caveat that many see the phrase as problematic without applying the belief to the individual.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote a letter to the public university explaining the issue with this requirement.

“While UC Davis is free to urge students to consider the broader social and political implications of their speech, the university cannot, consistent with students’ right to be free from compelled speech, require its students to adopt certain viewpoints or affirm that particular types of constitutionally protected speech are objectionable as a condition of their ability to register for classes at the university,” the group wrote.

FIRE cites Supreme Court precedent, West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, to this point in a blog post.

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein,” the court ruling states.

But UC Davis’s program does require students to hold a certain belief — that the phrases are problematic.

UC Davis counsel Michael Sweeney responded to FIRE’s letter, but refused to acknowledge any violation of students’ First Amendment rights.

“[T]he activity labeled “Words that Hurt” does not require students to take a stance on any issue.  The activity simply asks that students match up words/phrases with reasons for why the language is problematic, not that the student must agree that the language may be problematic,” he wrote. “Students are therefore not required to take a stance on any issue.”

But forcing them to choose any answer, all of which a student might disagree with, still violates their right to free speech and “freedom of conscience,” FIRE argues.

“Sweeney’s attempted justification is tantamount to UC Davis demanding that its students pray, but defending that demand by allowing students to pray to whatever deity they choose,” FIRE writes in a blog post. “That students can choose the flavor of compelled speech does not make it allowable under the First Amendment.”

UC Davis promised to review the program in Sweeney’s letter. It is unclear whether FIRE will take any further action.

Schools: University of California, Davis Cases: University of California, Davis: Mandatory Violence Prevention Program Violates Students’ Freedom of Conscience