FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for January 2015: Georgia Southern University (GSU).
As we begin a new year, we want to keep the focus squarely on the incursions on free speech by the federal government—specifically, by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). Last month, we highlighted a policy change at Pennsylvania State University that tracks the recommendations made by OCR in its May 2013 agreement with the University of Montana, which OCR described as a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.” In the so-called “blueprint,” OCR instructed the University of Montana that “sexual harassment should be more broadly defined as ‘any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’” including “verbal conduct.” Under this broad definition, virtually any sex- or gender-related speech could be sexual harassment as long as someone, however sensitive, finds it unwelcome.
In June 2014, Georgia Southern University likewise revised its sexual harassment policy to comport with the “blueprint.” Prior to June, GSU defined sexual harassment in the educational setting as sexual conduct that “unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work, living environment, academic performance, or creates an intimidating or hostile work or academic environment.” Now, it is simply defined as—you guessed it—“unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”
The federal government’s foray into campus censorship is having serious consequences, and it will continue to do so. Because the incentives are so dramatically different when the pressure to censor comes from a federal agency capable of cutting off a school’s federal funding, the response from free speech advocates must be different too. While we of course must urge universities like Georgia Southern and Penn State to take a stand for their students’ First Amendment rights, it is yet more critical that we sound the alarm about this government overreach until someone—whether from within OCR or above it—puts an end to this nonsense.
For these reasons, Georgia Southern University is our January 2015 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining the FIRE Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.