WVU labeled ‘red light’ school over free speech

September 24, 2005

MORGANTOWN – Under pressure from a lawsuit and student/faculty protests, West Virginia University abandoned a “free speech zone” policy that limited public debate to certain areas on campus in 2002.

But nearly three years later, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) calls the school a “red light” university when it comes to free speech.

So why is FIRE putting its brakes on when it comes to WVU?

“There are two primary ways in which speech codes violate the First Amendment: One, by being over broad and two, by being vague,” Samantha Harris, a program officer at FIRE said. “WVU maintains policies that are over broad and policies that are vague, earning it a ‘red light.'”

She points out three WVU policies that she said prohibit constitutionally protected speech: the ones on sexual harassment, discrimination and the “Strategic Plan for Achieving Social Justice.”

Harris said policies are vague if ordinary people have to guess at what it means and how it will be applied.

“It is a basic principle of fairness that people should be free to choose between lawful and unlawful action,” Harris said. “If a policy is vague, people do not have this freedom to choose because they do not know what is prohibited. In the case of policies restricting speech, this leads to self-censorship of constitutionally protected speech because people do not know what is actually prohibited and want to avoid punishment.”

She said WVU’s social justice plan is too vague.

“It implies that students or faculty may be disciplined by the university for ‘abuses of social justice principles,’ but leaves them to guess at what that might encompass,” Harris said.

Other policies, like the ones on sexual harassment and discrimination are too broad, according to FIRE. WVU bans things like offensive jokes, sexual innuendo, speech that might victimize someone or comments that might intimidate another person.

“While the state can prevent physical threats, restricting speech that simply insults or offends others bans an enormous amount of constitutionally protected speech,” Harris said.

The language in WVU’s sexual harassment and discrimination policies is similar to language in school policies that a federal court in Michigan struck down because it was too broad, according to Harris.

“You cannot ban speech that ‘victimizes.’ Also, no matter how unpleasant, you certainly can’t ban ‘innuendoes’ or even slurs, unless they are so severe, persistent and pervasive as to prevent someone from obtaining an education,” Harris said.

Becky Lofstead, a WVU spokeswoman, said she doesn’t believe the policies restrict free speech and that there aren’t many – if any – students or faculty who have complained about the policies. She said she wasn’t aware that FIRE had labeled WVU a red light school.

“We want to be cognizant of the issue and I’ll pass (the information) on to those in charge. But I just want to ensure everyone who comes to school here and works here and the people who visit our campus that we are a place that honors and respects everyone … I believe the policies are fair and balanced,” she said.

Bethany College, a private, church-affiliated school in Bethany, was the only other school in the state to earn a red light from FIRE. The organization cites nine different Bethany policies, including its student handbook, as restricting constitutionally protected speech.

FIRE is a nonprofit organization that says its mission is to defend individual rights on America’s campuses.

“These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience – the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity,” according to the organization’s Web site. For more information, visit http://thefire.org.

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Schools: West Virginia University Cases: West Virginia University: Limit on Speech to Campus “Free Speech Zones”