Freedom of speech at Utah’s two largest public universities is under scrutiny with a new report this week saying both schools “unambiguously infringe on protected expression.” School leaders, however, say the report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is incomplete and many policies are taken out of context.
Utah State University and the University of Utah joined a group of 229 schools to which the national First Amendment watchdog group gave a “red light” to signify the school “maintains highly unconstitutional standards.” Utah Valley State College also made the list but received a yellow light for “standards vague and broad enough to lend themselves to abuse.”
Only eight schools nationwide received green lights, indicating FIRE did not find policies restricting freedom of speech. In particular, the report identified student codes, harassment and housing policies the group believes use language that unnecessarily curtail free speech such as a ban on “offensive speech” or “inappropriate words.”
Private school Brigham Young University was not ranked because the report said the Provo school is “clear about the fact that they place their Mormon identity above all other factors,” and students recognized that “expectations of free speech are mistaken at BYU.”
“There is a common misconception that speech codes are a thing of the past — a relic of the heyday of political correctness of the 1980s and ‘90s — but the public needs to know that speech codes are perhaps more pervasive and restrictive than ever,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said.
Gary Chambers, vice president of student services, said the report had “all kinds of holes” and took several of USU’s policies out of context. A statement in the school’s sexual harassment student code, for example, discourages the use of words such as “hunk, doll, babe or honey” or behaviors such as “hanging around, standing close or brushing up against a person.”
But Chambers said the excerpt does not mean the school will punish students who use those terms. Rather, the policy is used as a teaching tool and the words are examples of language that could potentially be harassment.
The report also questioned a second policy at USU which states the “USU housing community supports, practices and respects the dignity of all persons by not demeaning, teasing, ridiculing or insulting individuals or groups.”
That section, Chambers said, aims to protect students rather than restrict them.
“We do recognize that campuses become one of the greatest melting pots for the exchange of learning,” he said. “We hope the policies we have in place would allow people of different ideologies to express those feelings and have them heard and understood.”
On the same token, U. Dean of Students Stayner Landward said a policy discouraging “racist, sexist or indecent” information in residence halls is not a violation of free speech as indicated by the FIRE report. Codifying the fact that school leaders will not support racist language does not mean students would be cited with infractions simply because they use racist or derogatory terms, he said.
If a student directs those statements at a specific individual in a threatening way, then the language is no longer protected as free speech and Landward said a student would be subject to an investigation and possible violation.
“I’m going to stand by that,” he said. “It’s a fine line, but I’m comfortable with where we are. We just don’t support or protect students who violate another’s rights.”
The report, however, says the two Utah schools are among hundreds of national universities that take the restrictions too far in the name of safety. Those schools are at risk for legal challenges, the report states.
“While a university has every right to actively promote a tolerant and respectful atmosphere on campus, a university that claims to respect free speech must not limit speech to only the inoffensive and agreeable,” the report states.
Chambers said he was particularly surprised by the school’s inclusion on the list of red schools because university leaders abide by a content-neutral approach to any student events or protests.
While USU does have restrictions on when and where protests or rallies can take place, all groups are treated equally regardless of the content of their message.
“It was viewed by our legal staff that we have every right to do that to make sure you can continue with your normal course of business, but we don’t restrict the content,” he said. “From my experience at USU, we ought to have a great big green light.”
The four were the only Utah schools included in the report. The group surveyed 334 public and private universities including the 100 best universities and 50 best liberal arts colleges as ranked by U.S. News and World Report, and an additional 184 major public universities.