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University of Rhode Island’s contradictory values and policies chill speech

Before I entered FIRE’s summer internship program, I knew that my university, the University of Rhode Island, was dubiously designated FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month in December 2016 — an award given to campuses with particularly restrictive and/or ridiculous rules about what students can and cannot say on campus. Upon taking a closer look at URI’s student handbook, my recently developed eye for problematic university policies helped me spot some troubling contradictions between my school's stated philosophy and its policies.

While URI's handbook states that students “have the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom of inquiry and peaceful assembly” (and while URI, as a public university, is legally bound to honor First Amendment protections), too many of its policies don’t reflect or respect these laudable declarations, going so far as to contradict and compromise them. This not only conflicts with URI’s Cornerstone Values, but it misleads us, suppresses valuable speech, and even discourages us from actively participating in the process of higher education.

URI must remove the statements and policies in the Student Handbook that damage our capacity to learn, and rewrite them to align with the university’s otherwise robust commitment to freedom of expression.

First, URI’s restrictive definition of harassment is a far cry from the jurisprudence from the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court defined harassment in the educational setting in 1999’s Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education as conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victims of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” Yet URI’s definitions of sexual harassment is far broader: “any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” qualifies. That’s a problem. URI’s definition leaves students with the impression that our rights are more limited than they actually are, which can leave us uncritically abiding by policies that suppress and chill our speech. The genius of the Davis standard is that it protects students from actual harassment while also protecting the right to express controversial opinions and even to offend, thus protecting the freedom of speech and ensuring an environment in which students will learn to sharpen their own argumentation skills through engagement with opposing viewpoints — something that a university has an imperative to support and provide.

URI’s definition is at odds with this purpose. It explicitly states that a single intentional or unintentional “improper” action such as “eye contact, remarks, comments, jokes, discussions about sex” can constitute harassment, and thus be punishable. We’re in college and we can’t even make jokes without fear of facing consequences that could severely damage our future.

It seems URI’s commitment to free speech has been supplanted by its well-meaning commitment to student respect, which states that students “have the right to respect and human dignity, and to a learning environment free of disruption and intimidation.”

But dealing with offense is a natural part of being in an environment where our morals and notions are challenged, and thus gives us access to a mechanism and opportunity to grow as intellectuals and individuals. For this reason, speech must not be limited or curtailed simpy because we find it objectionable. One person’s offensive comment is another person’s comedic masterpiece or brilliant insight. Since single incidents of offense are very subjective, and anyone can be offended and feel emotionally distressed by any expression, the single incident standard of harassment becomes absurd.

The university’s elevation of students’ emotional comfort over the right to free speech is the culprit behind another troubling policy. URI’s “Bias-Based Incident” policy bans any incident “which has a negative effect on an individual or group and which is based on or motivated by bias against race, sex, religion, age, color, creed, national origin, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or disabled and/or Vietnam era veteran status.”

So long as speech or expression is perceived as being motivated by bias and has any kind of “negative effect,” it can be reported through official channels and elicit formal punishment. Not only is it unconstitutional to suppress speech on the basis of “bias” alone, but it discourages students from speaking openly in a way that might ultimately lead them to inquire into or confront their own biases, and those of others. It also implies that the administration has the ultimate intellectual and moral authority for what’s good for us as students. How arrogant.

Among URI’s Cornerstone Values is the directive “[t]o work to understand differences.” Suppressing speech, even prejudiced speech, undermines this value by moving us away from the goal of authentically eliminating bias through discussion and learning. URI should be giving us more — not fewer — opportunities to learn and grow from our own deeply held beliefs, and through interacting with others more, and we shouldn’t be encouraged to retreat to authority in the face of adversity. This is not practicing, as URI exhorts us to, “honesty, integrity and courage.”

Yet another Cornerstone Value is also compromised by censorship. It states that “[w]e promote independent choice, intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, and free expression.” For such values central to the school’s philosophy, URI doesn’t seem to uphold them with much consideration.

What’s more, URI’s bias incident policy explicitly states that punishable incidents “may or may not involve breaches of university policies or state or federal law.” Talk about the potential for abuse of power. This brazenly declares that URI is asserting authority over conduct that not only may not violate the law, but that may not even violate the university’s own policies!

Students deserve the right to express themselves without authoritative intimidation looming over their heads, chilling valuable speech and restricting our right and freedom to express it.

If URI is genuinely committed to the laudable rights and values so proudly written into its handbook, it will revise the policies that so clearly contradict these values.

Sam Foer is a rising junior at the University of Rhode Island and a FIRE summer intern.

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