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USF Student Newspaper Reports on Speech Codes; Administration Defensive

The University of South Florida’s student newspaper, The Oracle, published a comprehensive story on free speech at USF this week. The article leads off with an example that illustrates a problem all too common on today’s college campuses: Students seek to express themselves on an issue of political or social importance, but instead of helping to facilitate open debate, the university administration throws up roadblocks. As detailed in The Oracle article: When students organized a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Trayvon Martin last February, conflict occurred between the student organizations and university administration over whether a permit for the event would be granted, according to USF alumnus and former Students for Democratic Society (SDS) President Matt Hastings.[…]The event was able to take place, and Hastings said the majority of the 60 attendees were USF students. Throughout the planning process, however, he said student organization leaders felt that they were facing difficulties in having their concerns addressed and heard by administrators at the university. “When you have USF administrators emailing you and calling you up, threatening you with hundreds of dollars of fines and disciplinary action, you’re going to be a little scared, and you’re not prepared to stand up to that,” he said.  This feeling that college administrators are an impediment to, rather than a resource for, students seeking to express themselves turns on its head the ideal of the college campus as a marketplace of ideas.  Making matters worse are the unconstitutional speech codes in force at so many campuses around the country, including USF. The Oracle piece discusses USF’s “red light” rating from FIRE, noting that USF earns this poor rating because of harassment policies that list protected speech as examples of prohibited conduct. USF’s Discrimination and Harassment policy (PDF), for example, prohibits making “comments” or “jokes” that “are derogatory toward any individual’s race, color, marital status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or veteran status.” Most derogatory comments, however offensive they may be, are constitutionally protected unless they rise to the level of severity and pervasiveness necessary to constitute unprotected harassment.  Unfortunately, USF administrators interviewed for the article dismissed FIRE’s concerns: “Sometimes, in terms of the kind of community we want or the kind of learning environment we want to provide for students, FIRE gets down into very, very particular words and if the right word isn’t there, you get a red light,” [USF Dean for Students Michael] Freeman said. In one sense, Freeman is right; if a university maintains a policy using “particular words” that prohibit constitutionally protected speech, FIRE will rate that university accordingly. What’s more, the “particular words” at issue in USF’s policy are the type of words that, when a student or faculty member is accused of harassment for protected expression, universities trot out to justify the punishment of free speech. For example, when Brandeis University found Professor Donald Hindley guilty of racial harassment for using the term “wetbacks” in his Latin American politics class (in an effort to explain the term’s racist connotations), it justified that finding by citing the fact that “examples” of harassment under the school’s policy included these types of remarks. This is the same kind of examples list that USF’s Dean Freeman dismisses to The Oracle as “minor.”   We are pleased that The Oracle ran such a comprehensive story on the issue of free speech at USF. We are also happy that they shared with students and other readers one of the most important points regarding FIRE and speech codes: FIRE is always happy to work with—and has often worked with—universities to improve the state of free speech on campus. We hope we have the opportunity to work with USF to make it Florida’s first “green light” school.Image: “Stoplight” - Shutterstock 

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