Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post wrote for her blog The Answer Sheet today about the University of Virginia's (UVa's) elimination of four policies that had restricted free speech on campus. Torch readers will remember that in November, UVa became the 13th school in FIRE's Spotlight database to earn a green-light rating, meaning that FIRE is unaware of any policies that threaten students' free speech rights on that campus.
Strauss' article highlights the four policies that UVa reformed:
*Groves reformed the school's "Just Report It!" "bias reporting" system to promise students that protected speech will not be "subject to university disciplinary action or formal investigation" even if it is reported.
*Shirley Payne, assistant vice president for information security, policy and records, removed unconstitutional language from a policy prohibiting Internet messages that "vilify" others and mailing list messages that are "inappropriate."
*The school's Women's Center removed two policies with unconstitutional examples of "sexual harassment" from its website.
Strauss also quotes UVa Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Allen W. Groves, who worked productively with FIRE to make UVa a safe haven for free speech:
"We are pretty affectionate about Thomas Jefferson here," he said, referring to UVa's founder. "If any place ought to be protective of free speech and open discourse, it's the University of Virginia."
He said that while colleges and universities want to protect their students from "unpleasant and ugly situations," they face the challenge of drawing a line between things that might be unpleasant but are protected speech, and things that are harassing and threatening that can be disciplined.
"The effort to protect against harassment sometimes goes too far," he said.
We would add that all institutions of higher learning whose purpose is to help young adults think for themselves in a very complex world ought to be so protective of free speech. Unfortunately, as Strauss notes, most institutions fall short:
According to FIRE's report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses, 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students' free speech rights. That was a drop from 71 percent a year ago, but FIRE said it is concerned that a surge in restrictions may occur.
That's 261 schools with a red-light rating and 107 with a yellow-light rating!
Strauss finishes her piece by citing Adam's intention to help George Mason University, James Madison University, and Virginia Tech—three more of Virginia's leading public universities—reform their speech codes.
Much work needs to be done to improve the state of free speech on campuses across the nation. The State of Virginia has a great opportunity to be the leader in this field.