American University

Location: Washington, District Of Columbia
Type: Private
Federal Circuit: 1st Circuit

Speech Code Rating

American University has been given the speech code rating Red. A red light university has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. Read more here.

  • American University: Denial of Right to Videotape Public Events

    June 1, 2002

    American University (AU) has punished an undergraduate student journalist for videotaping a public speech by Tipper Gore. A kangaroo court at AU found the student guilty of “possession of stolen property.” Ben Wetmore was charged with seven violations of campus policy, including “theft” of Tipper Gore’s “intellectual property.” These charges came after a long history of the university targeting Wetmore for his protected speech. In a revealing response to a letter about the case, AU Vice President and University Counsel Mary E. Kennard criticized Wetmore for ignoring the University’s”admonitions”; not “;to post derogatory materials about staff on his website”—as if it […]

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Red Light Policies

  • Student Conduct Code

    Speech Code Category: Harassment Policies
    Last updated: June 30, 2015

    “Harassment”–an intimidating, hostile, or coercive act which is intentional or persistent.

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Yellow Light Policies
  • Discrimination and Sexual Harassment Policy

    Speech Code Category: Harassment Policies
    Last updated: June 30, 2015

    Discriminatory harassment is defined as verbal, written, visual, or physical conduct that denigrates or shows hostility against a protected class when such conduct has the purpose or effect of: 1) unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work or academic performance, or 2) creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating, or offensive working, living, or learning environment.

    [U]nwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other oral, written, or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: … such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s performance, or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or academic environment.

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  • Policy on Posting Materials

    Speech Code Category: Posting and Distribution Policies
    Last updated: June 30, 2015

    The following guidelines should be followed by those wishing to post items on campus:

    1. All registered student organizations must have all items approved by University Center and Student Activities prior to being mass produced.

    8. Posted materials may not advertise alcohol, drugs, gambling, or anything else that would be a violation of University policies, either through language or artwork.

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Green Light Policies
  • Freedom of Expression Guidelines

    Speech Code Category: Advertised Commitments to Free Expression
    Last updated: June 30, 2015

    Freedom of expression and dissent is protected by university policy for all members of the university community.

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  • Computer Use and Copyright Policy

    Speech Code Category: Internet Usage Policies
    Last updated: June 30, 2015

    using email, messaging services, or any electronic communication service to harass, stalk or intimidate another person (e.g., by broadcasting unsolicited messages, repeatedly sending unwanted mail, or using another individuals’ name or user name).

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  • Responding to Faculty Resolution, American University Student Government Unanimously Endorses Trigger Warnings

    October 8, 2015

    Students at American University (AU) are at odds with faculty over whether trigger warnings help or hurt free speech on campus. On Sunday, the AU undergraduate senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill formally endorsing trigger warnings, according to the campus newspaper, The Eagle. The bill was a response to a resolution passed by AU’s faculty last month, which questioned the propriety of trigger warnings and, separately, vowed to strengthen free speech protections on campus. FIRE praised AU’s faculty for the move in a press release last month, citing it as a positive development in our effort to encourage […]

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  • It’s Free Speech Week, and Students Are Speaking Out

    October 21, 2013

    October 21­–27 is Free Speech Week, a celebration of Americans’ First Amendment right to free expression. You can celebrate by sharing information about constitutional rights with your friends, planning a free speech event, or even speaking your mind about the news of the day. Students especially should take this week to find out just how free speech is respected on their campuses and urge their classmates and administrators to make sure this fundamental right is fully protected. In the spirit of Free Speech Week, American University (AU) student Sarah Harvard took to student newspaper The Eagle last Friday to do just that. Harvard conducted a survey of AU students that addressed their […]

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  • FIRE President Greg Lukianoff Speaking at American University Tonight

    April 30, 2013

    FIRE President Greg Lukianoff will be on the campus of his undergraduate alma mater, American University, tonight to discuss free speech on campus and his book, Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of American Debate. American University is a “red light” school, which means it has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of expression.   Greg’s speech is free and open to the public and will take place at 6 p.m. in Ward Hall, room #4 (4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.). The event is sponsored by the American University chapter of Students For […]

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  • ‘The Eagle’ on How American U. Can Improve Its ‘Red Light’ Rating

    September 28, 2012

    American University (AU) is currently rated as a “red light” institution in FIRE’s Spotlight database, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s the message AU students should take away from an article in the campus newspaper The Eagle drawing attention to AU’s speech codes.  The Eagle‘s Maris Feeley writes that AU’s Spotlight rating is due to a Student Handbook policy that defines “harassment” (PDF) as “an intimidating, hostile, or coercive act which is intentional or persistent.” This vague and broadly phrased policy is, on its face, an ever-present threat to AU students’ freedom of speech. Though AU is […]

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  • Free Speech Week Fallout at American University

    April 17, 2012

    Last week here on The Torch, Jaclyn penned a roundup of the Free Speech Week activities that took place nationwide during the first week of April. While the vast majority of events went off without a hitch, students at American University had a disappointing experience: Not all groups were so lucky, disappointingly. The Free Speech Wall at American University was removed by campus police without any notice between Monday night and Tuesday morning. According to AU student Alex McHugh, when the AU Students For Liberty contacted the Student Activities office (which had approved the event, and an identical one last […]

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  • ‘Free Speech Week’ Celebrated on Campuses Nationwide

    April 13, 2012

    FIRE celebrated Free Speech Week last week by teaming up with Students For Liberty to send FIRE speakers and materials to student groups across the country. We’re pleased to announce it was a great success!   To mark the occasion, 72 student groups distributed FIRE materials and pocket-sized Constitutions on campus. More than 20 student groups also organized expressive events. Many decided to build Free Speech Walls at schools including American University, Boston University, Harvard University, Kansas State University, Winthrop University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Texas San Antonio. FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network (CFN) also worked with […]

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  • Adam to Speak at American, Syracuse This Week

    April 13, 2011

    FIRE’s Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel will speak at two colleges this week whose recent free speech controversies have drawn FIRE’s scrutiny. Today, Adam will speak at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C. He will discuss AU’s speech codes, as well as a recent incident concerning the AU Student Government’s (AUSG’s) punishment of a student organization that had endorsed AUSG election candidates by revoking the group’s endorsement “privileges.” Then, on Thursday, Adam will address students at Syracuse University College of Law (SUCOL). Syracuse earned a spot on FIRE’s “12 Worst Colleges for Free Speech” list in The Huffington Post […]

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  • American University Says No to DOJ Grant Over Mandatory Sexual Assault Classes and Surveys

    March 30, 2011

    On the website, Amanda Hess has an interesting article about American University’s (AU’s) decision to block a campus initiative that would have made the university eligible for $300,000 in federal grants from the U.S. Department of Justice, aimed at addressing and preventing sexual assault on campus. Why did AU do it? Here’s the key part: The proposed education program would require all new students to attend a seminar and an individualized break-out session on the topics of “healthy relationships, consent, relationship violence, stalking, sexual assault and risks correlated with increased use of drugs and alcohol.” Incoming students would also […]

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  • Adam on American University’s New Conduct Code: Same Problem, New University

    September 17, 2010

    Much of the September 14 issue of the American University student newspaper The Eagle concerns recent revisions to AU’s “Student Conduct Code.” Of particular concern to AU students is the vague expansion of AU’s ability to punish off-campus behavior. It’s not hard to see why; the revised regulation simultaneously gives AU more authority to police off-campus behavior and gives AU students less of an idea of what may be punished. According to the new code (with emphasis on “may”): [T]he university may take disciplinary action for off-campus infractions of the Code when a student’s behavior threatens or endangers the safety […]

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  • At American University, Newspaper Theft Goes Unpunished, and Leaves Questions About Commitment to Free Speech

    August 6, 2010

    A couple of weeks ago Adam wrote a blog post reviewing some of the most egregious acts of college press censorship from this past year. Among them was an instance of newspaper theft at American University (AU), sparked by the publication of—as is often the case with newspaper thefts—a controversial student column. Some students responded to the column, published in the independent student newspaper The Eagle, by stealing and vandalizing hundreds of issues. Unfortunately, no students—although it is now known that at least one of the perpetrators of the thefts was a student at AU—appear to have been punished or […]

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  • Threats to Freedom of the Press on Campus, 2009-2010

    July 15, 2010

    Over at The Huffington Post, Dan Reimold provides an alarming list of violations and threats to freedom of the press on college campuses from the past academic year. FIRE was involved in several of these cases where students, administrators, or other campus officials—and in one case a county prosecutor—interfered with campus press. We reported on the massive theft of papers by the Texas A&M University football team, under the approving direction of the football coach, Guy Morriss. At the time, Will wrote: Not only was Coach Morriss blustering on record about being proud of his team’s lawless disregard for speech, […]

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  • CFN Members at American University Show Support For Free Speech

    April 22, 2009

    Earlier this month, members of FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network and American University Students for Liberty hosted a FIRE table on their campus. They passed out FIRE’s Guides to Students Rights on Campus as well as other FIRE materials to students walking around campus. According to CFN member and AU SFL President Irena Schneider ’11, “We taped our mouths with duct tape, on which we wrote ‘speech codes.’ We hampered ourselves this way to symbolize the inability of students across the country to express themselves freely because of restrictive speech codes enforced by their university administrations.” Along with the materials provided […]

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  • FIRE President to Speak at American University Tonight

    February 19, 2009

    FIRE President Greg Lukianoff will speak tonight at American University. The title of Greg’s speech is “Unlearning Liberty,” in which he will discuss the threats to liberty on campus. Greg will also explain how administrative censorship teaches students to choose censorship instead of discussion to combat ideas with which they disagree. Tonight’s lecture is co-sponsored by The Kennedy Political Union and American University Students for Liberty. Greg’s speech will take place at the Mary Graydon Center #3 at 6:00 pm EST.

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  • Ladner ‘Is Terminated as President’ of American University

    October 11, 2005

    So it finally happened: the president of American University, my undergrad alma mater, has been terminated (subscription required) after coming “under heavy fire for spending university funds on lavish personal parties, a highly paid chef, and other amenities, including a car service for his wife.” The battle with Ladner has been epic, but he may have the last laugh after all because his contract “could require the university to retain Mr. Ladner as American’s highest paid faculty member for life.” Still, this is undeniably a major blow to a formerly imperial university president. Of course, it is hard for me […]

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  • Hunting Witches and Terrorists

    September 29, 2005

    As we have pointed out before, American University President Benjamin Ladner is currently suspended and under investigation for possible misuse of AU funds. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), Ladner responded to the controversy with a striking statement: In a lengthy interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Ladner said he wants to return to his post. “I felt mugged,” he said of the recent furor over his expenses. “Clearly it was a witch hunt. I now know that.” The reason that comment was so striking to me is that Ladner ought to know a witch […]

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  • AU President Placed on Leave

    August 25, 2005

    Benjamin Ladner, the president of American University, has been placed on paid leave “pending the outcome of an investigation into personal and travel expenses.” Ladner is accused of “us[ing] university funds to pay for the use of a French chef, an engagement party for his son, trips to Europe, and $200,000 in drainage and landscaping work at his home.” Ladner, of course, is no friend of civil liberties, as FIRE’s run-in with him in 2002 proved. But even someone who denied a student critic the most basic free speech and due process rights still deserves the latter while he is […]

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  • UC Santa Barbara’s Unlikely Claims

    February 8, 2005

    Last week the University of California at Santa Barbara capitulated in its attempt to force the owner of a site called to remove the initials “UCSB” on its site. This is a remarkable case for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it highlights the trend of using intellectual property law as a tool for silencing criticism. Obviously, it would be hard to criticize an organization or institution if you couldn’t say its name! “Man, I think BLANK is corrupt. You know who I mean by BLANK, correct?” just isn’t a very effective way to dissent. […]

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