WSU revises conduct code

By August 8, 2006

Washington State University recently released a new draft of its student conduct code, replacing a previous draft that was criticized for violating the right to free speech.

The new draft seems to be written to carefully match the First Amendment, said Mitch Pickerill, a political science professor at WSU.

Pickerill had concerns that the last draft could have been used to sanction speech.

WSU released the previous draft in February. It was slated to go to the board of regents in May. Administrators decided to wait because of the concerns students, faculty and staff had with the code.

WSU didn’t want to pass anything arbitrarily over the summer, without student input, so administrators decided to wait until fall to continue the process, said Al Jamison, vice president for student affairs at WSU.

The new draft doesn’t address the main concerns students had with the code, said Robert Easterly, coordinator for intercultural leadership initiatives and student development.

The conduct code doesn’t allow someone who files a complaint to follow up with it through the process, he said. The person with complaints doesn’t have access to the file on the case because of laws protecting the accused. The person who filed the complaint wouldn’t know the conduct board’s final decision, unless the person who was accused signed a release of that information.

Not allowing people to see the outcome of their complaints, after they’ve been harassed, doesn’t give the conduct code much weight, Easterly said.

Exactly what happens after a complaint is filed also is unclear, he said, adding that both those problems existed in the previous draft.

The primary differences in the drafts are in the sexual misconduct, harassment, malicious intent and discrimination sections.

The other draft gave one definition of discrimination as creating an “offensive environment.”

“That ‘offensive’ word is a red flag, basically,” Pickerill said, noting that it leaves a tremendous amount of subjectivity to the process.

The new draft does not include “offensive environment” wording.

Leaving that out will make it harder for the administration to apply the code to offensive speech, which is where the code could run into issues with free speech, Pickerill said.

The new draft also makes some changes to the definition of harassment.

The original code defined harassment in a way that if someone was offended by another’s action, it could be considered harassment, Pickerill said.

That can lead to the code of conduct being applied in ludicrous ways, he said.

The harassment section of a student conduct code is usually where universities run into problems with the first amendment, said Samantha Harris, director of legal and public advocacy for the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education.

WSU’s definition of harassment fits closely with the United States Supreme Court’s, she said.

Many universities will go well beyond the legal definition of harassment in their conduct codes, she said.

Anything that’s not legally considered harassment usually is protected speech, she said. This code does not appear to restrict speech.

WSU administrators worked with the university’s attorney general’s office and the Office of Student Conduct to revise the code, Jamison said.

The tried to write a code that would address the original issues of hate speech and discriminatory speech and balance that with free speech, he said.

The revamp of the conduct code stemmed from a few hot-button issues on campus in the past couple of years, Pickerill said. A student who worked at Multicultural Student Services filed a harassment case against a pair of student-athletes in spring 2005. that same semester, a student filed a complaint alleging university officials tried to stifle a controversial play he produced.

WSU is currently taking comments on the new draft. Public hearing will take place in mid-October. The code is slated to go the board of regents for approval Nov. 17.

While the new draft is more in-line with the first amendment, it’s yet to be seen how it will be applied, Pickerill said.

The new wording doesn’t mean much if it’s still used to sanction people who say things that other people don’t like, he said.

He hopes students will keep an eye out for that.

“You want conflict on a campus,” he said. “You want different ideas out there.”