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Columbia Students and Faculty Eye Policy Reform, But Should Focus on ‘Red Light’ Rating

Students and faculty members at Columbia University have recently been amping up their demands for reform of the university’s policies and practices regarding free speech on campus. Seeing this type of awareness and activism from members of a university community is encouraging, and we hope it prompts the Columbia administration to re-examine its approach to campus discussion and dialogue. However, the students and professors who are leading this praiseworthy charge should be aware of the specific problems with Columbia’s “red light” and “yellow light” speech codes, and they should also focus their efforts on getting those policies changed.

Last month, students at Columbia started an online petition urging the University Senate Rules Committee to review Columbia’s “Rules of University Conduct,” which, in part, regulate protests and other free speech activities. A group of 30 faculty members at Columbia and Barnard College have released an open letter supporting the student petition and calling on Columbia to reform its approach to campus protests. In addition, students have written articles for the Columbia Spectator student newspaper decrying the university’s rules and regulations on campus expressive activity.

Students and faculty members at Columbia who are interested in protecting the right to speak up at their school should be commended. After all, even though Columbia is a private university and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it makes clear commitments in official policy to freedom of expression and open discourse. FIRE wishes that more college and university campuses were home to this level of free speech activism.

That said, the students and professors would do well to also focus efforts on Columbia’s current red light and yellow light speech codes, all of which can be found in FIRE’s Spotlight database. Those policies represent the worst current restrictions on freedom of expression at Columbia, meaning that those concerned about their speech rights at the university should begin there. In particular, Columbia maintains a red light policy on “Email Usage” that states:

No User of University email may take any of the following actions: … Send obscene, harassing, offensive or other unwelcome messages.

This policy earns a red light rating from FIRE because it clearly and substantially restricts speech protected by the First Amendment—or, in this case, speech that must be protected at a private institution committed to freedom of expression. It does not take a First Amendment attorney to realize that a prohibition on “offensive” speech covers a great deal of social and political commentary, humor and satire, and other core protected speech. Moreover, who gets to decide what views are considered “offensive” at Columbia?

Students’ ability to express themselves online is likewise compromised by the ban on any and all “unwelcome messages”—after all, students could face censorship or punishment for perfectly innocuous speech that a complaining student simply does not like. Finally, bans on “obscene” speech, in FIRE’s experience, are often enforced by colleges and universities against the mere use of profanity and the like, not against true obscenity as defined under the law. Therefore, Columbia should make clear in this policy that its ban on “obscene … messages” is limited to true obscenity as defined under federal and state law, rather than any message that the recipient deems to be lewd or profane.

As Columbia’s lone red light speech code, the Email Usage policy should be a major priority for those urging change from the university administration. Additionally, Columbia has three yellow light speech codes, which are ambiguous policies that invite administrative abuse. These policies cover “Discrimination and Harassment,” “Gender-Based Misconduct,” and “Responding to Acts of Bias and Hate,” and they too can be viewed on Columbia’s Spotlight page.

FIRE would be more than happy to work with the students, faculty, and administrators of Columbia toward revising each and every one of these policies to meet the university’s stated commitments to freedom of speech. We hope that those who have already sounded the calls for policy reform will fortify their efforts by focusing on the policies that are most in need of change, and we hope Columbia’s administration is willing to listen to these much-needed voices.

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