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University of Utah anti-racism policy forces faculty to ‘eradicate’ words from teaching, curriculum

The policy clearly violates their First Amendment rights.
The University of Utah entrance sign

UPDATED (March 29, 2023): The University of Utah responded on March 24 affirming its commitment to free speech and academic freedom. Dean of the College of Humanities, Hollis Robbins, said new leadership is currently evaluating statements on inclusive practices. Since Robbins’ response, the Anti-Racist Code of Conduct web page has been taken down. FIRE will continue to monitor the situation to ensure any policy respects students’ and faculty members’ expressive rights.

In a clear violation of First Amendment free speech and academic freedom rights, the University of Utah’s Department of Communication is barring faculty from communicating disfavored words and ideas under its Anti-Racist Code of Conduct that requires the “eradication” of certain speech from teaching and curricula.

In Nov. 2020, department faculty voted to adopt the ARCC, which “impos[es] an affirmative obligation on all Departmental members to engage in anti-racist actions and support anti-racist Department institutions and norms.” 

Those obligations include being “active bystanders” and “interrupt[ing] racism in all forms” by “eradicat[ing]” speech “that stereotype[s], inferentially identif[ies], culturally discriminate[s] against, or harm[s] people of color,” and “disrupt[ing] and dismantl[ing] racist learning and work environments created through White normativity and discriminatory actions such as microaggressions, microassaults, and microinsults.” 

To demonstrate recognition and enforcement of the ARCC, faculty must reform curriculum “to centralize work by scholars of color,” put the ARCC in their syllabi, and use the supplemental Anti-Racist Strategic Plan that establishes departmental goals. In order to achieve some of the stated goals, faculty have been told to develop undergraduate curricula focusing on anti-racism, faculty applicants must submit a diversity statement outlining how their research, teaching, and service would align with the goals, and faculty reviews will include anti-racism as a measurable criterion. 

FIRE wrote the department yesterday explaining that, as a part of a public university bound by the First Amendment, the department may not force faculty and faculty applicants to endorse any prescribed ideology, nor may it “eradicate” protected speech or reform professors’ curriculum without regard for the faculty’s academic freedom.

FIRE has previously written to schools warning that their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives infringe on faculty rights. Many initiatives we have warned about have been similar to the ARCC, such as the California Community Colleges forcing faculty to commit to “anti-racism,” and Boston University encouraging faculty to be “active bystanders” and seemingly requiring faculty to teach through an “anti-racist lens.” But the affirmative obligation imposed by the ARCC, along with its sweeping scope, represents a new level of intrusiveness.

Both the ARCC and ARSP impermissibly force the embracement and promotion of the department’s own views on DEI — leaving faculty and applicants unable to dissent from the majority opinion and to follow the dictates of their own consciences. If the department wants to encourage certain types of speech and actions, it may certainly do so, but it must be careful not to resort to coercion, which not only violates the speaker’s right against compelled speech and right to free speech, but dilutes the meaning of the message.  

The ARCC and ARSP also infringe on faculty’s academic freedom to have autonomy over their course content and teaching methods. In order to discover truth, devise solutions, or advance intellectually, it’s important for students to hear all sorts of perspectives and opinions. That can happen only when professors have the discretion to conduct pedagogically relevant classroom discussions in the manner they see fit. Academic freedom protects this right even when the professor’s materials, views, or remarks are offensive to others. 

The department must protect academic freedom, honor faculty members’ individual First Amendment rights, and meet the university’s binding legal obligations.

The Supreme Court has time and again held government actors cannot restrict speech because some, or even many, find it offensive. This is also why the department can’t “eradicate” speech that goes against its goals or dismantle certain types of learning. 

As we explained in today’s letter: “Having leadership ‘directly intervene’ or having ‘mediated conversations’ in response to microaggressions, microassaults, and microinsults goes directly against this principle,” as it chills expressive activity. Any faculty member dragged into one of these resolution matters by an administrator with disciplinary authority would reasonably assume they may face punishment — and self-censor accordingly.

The lack of clear definitions for “microaggressions,” “microassaults,” and “microinsults” also renders the ARCC overbroad and vague. The ARCC is overbroad because it ignores that a great deal of speech that one may characterize as a microaggression, microassault, or microinsult is nonetheless entitled to First Amendment protection. The ARCC is also vague because it fails to notify people adequately of what conduct it prohibits. This leaves the ARCC ripe for abuse as it would allow the department to punish a wide range of faculty that fails to sufficiently promote the department’s goals.

While faculty may have been the ones who voted for the ARCC, they can’t vote away their peers’ basic rights.

We urge the department to consider the consequences the ARCC will have on faculty whose views, pedagogical choices, or associations are out-of-step with the department’s goals. The department must protect academic freedom, honor faculty members’ individual First Amendment rights, and meet the university’s binding legal obligations by eliminating or revising the ARCC and ARSP.

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