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Southern Illinois University Edwardsville bans using computing resources to send ‘offensive material’ 

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s “Responsible Use Policy” is an irresponsible policy for a public university to have on the books.

It regulates the use of university computing resources and networks, and specifically permits both academic and personal use of these resources. However, it also says any such use “for partisan political purposes” or to post or send “pornographic, sexually explicit, or offensive material” is impermissible, and that using network communications facilities to “offend” or “annoy” others is “forbidden.”

By the time you remove all use that could be construed by someone as political, offensive, sexual, or annoying, students aren’t left with much personal use after all. Accordingly, we’ve made the policy FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for February.

Government actors, including public universities, can’t limit speech on the sole basis someone finds it offensive. Supreme Court precedent on this is clear — so clear, it’s hard to imagine how this policy is in effect at a public institution. 

When faced with an outrage mob, falling back on official policy that allows censorship is all too easy.

SIUE isn’t alone in placing unreasonable restrictions on online speech, though. A review of FIRE’s Spotlight database of speech codes in 2021 found over half of the colleges in the database maintain an IT use policy that could too easily be applied to infringe on speech that is protected under First Amendment standards. Apparently schools have forgotten online speech is entitled to protection, too. 

A policy like this poses a twofold threat. 

First, even if it isn’t enforced consistently, it can be dug up whenever speech is subject to a wave of criticism, and administrators may be tempted to punish students for violating this policy. When faced with an outrage mob, falling back on official policy that allows censorship is all too easy. 

Second, such a broad policy threatens to have a chilling effect on expression, even absent any enforcement. Students aren’t likely to want to express themselves on political or controversial topics if they read that all partisan political activity and subjectively offensive speech is off-limits if conducted online. 

Is the president of College Republicans permitted to email their group about the policy positions of a local candidate? Can a student who advocates for abortion access on Twitter be banned for tweeting messages that could offend pro-life students? These students may just abstain from expressing themselves, rather than risk punishment. 

SIUE administrators couldn’t possibly enforce this policy to remove all potentially offensive or annoying content. Even if they wanted to, they’d need an army of staffers working around the clock to keep up with all the content that would fall within those absurdly broad categories. But the chilling effect means this policy could impact every student on campus, regardless of enforcement.

Colleges and universities should be empowering students to express themselves, not discouraging them from doing so with heavy-handed policies. 

It’s possible to target disruptive and unlawful conduct over university technology resources without encompassing protected speech, and FIRE is here to help. We’ve worked with countless schools to recommend revisions that bring policies in line with First Amendment standards. 

We’d be pleased to work with SIUE to develop a speech-protective policy so SIUE students can get back to expressing themselves, online or offline.

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