Former James Madison University student and 2012 FIRE summer intern Luke Wachob wrote to JMU student newspaper The Breeze on Sunday, urging JMU to bring its policies back in line with the First Amendment.
As my colleague Samantha Harris reported last week, JMU has lost its “green light” rating in our Spotlight database because it has implemented new policies that can be used to suppress or punish constitutionally protected expression. Unfortunately, FIRE’s warnings about JMU’s Spotlight status and our reminders about the public institution’s legal and moral obligations under the First Amendment to protect student speech did not persuade JMU to abide by those obligations.
The changes in JMU’s policies—and, therefore, its rating—are particularly disappointing because students, administrators, and FIRE worked together for years to reform JMU’s speech codes in order to earn it a green light in 2011. Luke was among those students, so his remarks on JMU’s failure are especially poignant.
Luke alerts readers to just some of the problematic policies JMU now maintains:
Some of the policies that provoked FIRE’s decision are downright shocking.
For example, “telling sexual or dirty jokes” or “circulating or showing emails or websites of a sexual nature” can constitute as sexual harassment under JMU’s policies.
JMU’s bullying policy also states that it often “includes offensive verbal, written, electronic or physical conduct.” Universities are committed to the open exploration of ideas, but that can only happen if students and professors are free to speak without fear of punishment.
As FIRE often points out, speech does not lose its protection merely because it is “offensive.”
Luke closes with this plea: “Hopefully JMU will fix its policies — and meet its obligation to abide by the Constitution — so we can once again be worthy of our namesake.”
Current students should ask the same of JMU. If the university won’t listen to FIRE, we hope it will listen to its own community.