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University of Georgia Student Paper Reports on School's 'Yellow Light' Rating

Wednesday’s edition of The Red & Black, the student newspaper at the University of Georgia (UGA), has an article on the school’s “yellow light” speech code rating. Based on an interview with Samantha Harris, FIRE’s director of policy research, Dillon Richards’ article explains UGA’s problematic policies, which include a 48-hour waiting period for approval to demonstrate anywhere outside of two designated “free speech zones.” The university’s legal counsel declined to comment, leaving Jan Barham, the associate dean of students, to defend the policies. Barham revealed once again how hard it is to explain why limiting speech on universities campuses is a good idea.

Barham, like her fellow administrator at Modesto Junior College, invoked the magic words “time, place, and manner” to justify limiting students’ expression. She further explained: “The 48 hours is there because we don’t know what other factors are happening on campus that will take our energy and our time,” adding that her office has never denied “legitimate requests to assemble.”

Why should Barham’s energy and time be used up if other people want to express their views? I have no idea.

My colleague Sam explained that a waiting period stifles counter-demonstrations and the exchange of views that a university is supposed to promote. Citing the incident earlier this year at the University of Alabama in which a pro-choice student group was prevented from handing out leaflets in response to a pro-life rally, Sam said: “The problem with prohibiting spontaneous demonstrations like that is that sometimes the immediacy of the message is part of how a protester or a demonstrator will communicate with their audience.” She added that making a group with a counter-message wait “kind of waters down your message and the tools you really need to connect to your audience.”

Barham also commented that the university has not denied any “legitimate” requests to assemble. As Sam clarified: “I’m not saying that [Barham] is not making those decisions in a reasonable fashion, ... [b]ut, you know, when you look at the law, the law requires ... clear, objective criteria, and the policy doesn’t supply that.” In particular, UGA does not explain what “legitimate” means. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary has three primary definitions for legitimate: 1) allowed according to rules or laws; 2) real, accepted, or official; 3) fair or reasonable. Presumably Barham is using legitimate in the sense of “fair or reasonable.” But what if her successor decides that the right to assemble should be limited to views that are “accepted or official?” Under the current policy, students would have no recourse. Any speech policy without objective standards is based on a “trust us” foundation, which is the same as no foundation at all, as Sam explained in this post about Rice University’s “red light” rating.

Barham issued UGA’s current policy (PDF) on the First Amendment, which is unequivocal: “No rights are more highly regarded at the University of Georgia than the [F]irst [A]mendment guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the right to assemble peaceably.” FIRE applauds UGA’s commitment to free expression -- in theory, if not currently in practice. As Sam put it, “[I]t would be super exciting if the university was interested in becoming a green light, and we would love to work with students and administrators toward that goal.”

Dean Barham, call us!

Image: Brooks Hall on the University of Georgia campus - Wikimedia Commons

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