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Victory for Freedom of Conscience at UC Davis: University Removes Coercive Slide from Sexual Assault Training Materials

Last month, FIRE wrote to the University of California, Davis (UC Davis) about a module in the university’s online sexual assault training that required students to identify certain types of speech as “problematic” in order to complete the training and register for classes. The module contained a section on “Harmful Language,” which informed students that phrases such as “I’d hit that!” or “I stalked him/her on Facebook” can “have a significant impact on normalizing violence.” Students were then asked to complete an activity in which they matched those words and phrases with “why they are problematic.” As FIRE wrote in our letter, this particular exercise amounted to a form of compelled speech in which students were required to affirm certain viewpoints in order to register for classes at the university.

FIRE initially received a tepid response from the university in which it agreed to review the program but also defended the slides to which FIRE had objected.

Yesterday, however, FIRE received good news via a follow-up email from UC Davis Senior Campus Counsel Michael Sweeney. Sweeney wrote that based on the university’s now-completed review of the program,

we have removed the “Harmful Language” slide and “Words that Hurt” activity. We will ensure that any new slides will not in any way require students to adopt certain viewpoints or affirm that any speech is objectionable.

Sweeney also affirmed the university’s broader commitment to students’ rights:

UC Davis is committed to the highest standards of freedom of expression and independent thought for the members of the University community, and continually works to ensure that all of our programs and activities are consistent with these standards. We always welcome your organization’s valuable perspective on our programs and activities. Thank you once again for bringing this to our attention.

FIRE applauds UC Davis for doing the right thing. We understand the tremendous amount of pressure on universities, from federal regulators and others, to address sexual assault on campus in ways that compromise students’ rights to free speech and due process. No federal agency, however, can require that a public university violate students’ constitutional rights, and FIRE will work with as many universities as we need to, for as long as we need to, in order to make sure this is understood.

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