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Student Paper Notes That Even After Litigation, University of Cincinnati Earns a ‘Red Light’

The University of Cincinnati (UC) had a bit of a rough year in 2012 in terms of upholding its First Amendment obligations and respecting student free speech. The university was sued by students from the campus chapter of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) for restricting their political speech and expressive activity pursuant to UC's unconstitutional free speech zone. (The students had some help from FIRE and the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, of course.) The students ultimately won a major free speech victory in federal court, securing a permanent injunction against the university's continued maintenance and enforcement of that policy.

Hoping for better results in 2013, UC student newspaper The News Record highlighted the university's remaining speech codes and its status as a "red light" institution in an article published on Sunday. News Record reporter Benjamin Goldschmidt observed that in earning an overall red light, UC joins approximately three-fifths of the 409 colleges and universities FIRE rated for our most recent annual speech code report, released in December. On what this means for the state of free speech on campuses nationwide, he quoted our Samantha Harris:

"For the fifth consecutive year ... this percentage has dropped," said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at FIRE, in a statement. "FIRE is happy that speech codes have again declined, but it is hard to feel too good when so many students are still living with censorship. We will continue our work until campus censorship is a thing of the past."

UC's current speech code rating is owed to its Residence Hall Handbook policy on "Harassment" (PDF), which states, "Harassment includes but is not limited to the infliction of mental or emotional abuse, ridicule, embarrassment, or intimidation." In maintaining this policy, UC ignores the fact that a lot of speech that could be defined as "mental or emotional abuse," "ridicule," or "embarrassment" is constitutionally protected, and therefore cannot be subject to punishment at a public university. Strong forms of speech, such as the passionate expression of one's views on a controversial or hot-button political issue, should not be discouraged on a college campus merely because they make some individuals uncomfortable. Furthermore, speech alone that constitutes "mental or emotional abuse" to one person may not be so abusive, and may even be tame or innocuous, to another person. The policy's vagueness on this point threatens a great deal of protected student expression. For these reasons, UC's Harassment policy earns a red light, as it clearly and substantially restricts free speech. UC would be well served to bring this policy in line with the narrow manner in which the Supreme Court has defined student-on-student harassment in the educational setting.

In addition to this speech code, UC currently maintains three "yellow light" policies—that is, policies that could ban or excessively regulate protected speech.

The good news is that UC, despite its poor recent history with respect to student expression, can very easily improve its speech code rating. In fact, if the university were to make the single effort of revising its red light policy on harassment, as set forth above, it would immediately improve to an overall yellow light rating. This would be a significant step forward in itself. From there, UC would need to address its three yellow light policies in order to seek FIRE's best, overall "green light" rating.

We hope that in 2013, the University of Cincinnati makes this a major institutional priority. FIRE is always ready and willing to help with the process of policy revision—at no charge to the university or the taxpayers and tuition payers who support it. In the meantime, our thanks to The News Record for bringing attention to this important issue.

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