Speech Code of the Month: California University of Pennsylvania

June 9, 2015

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for June 2015: California University of Pennsylvania (CUP).

CUP (located in the town of California, Pa., hence the name) is one of the fourteen public universities comprising the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. As a public university, CUP is required to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students. Indeed, courts in the Third Circuit, the jurisdiction of which includes Pennsylvania, have repeatedly held—at schools like Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and Temple University—that public university speech codes violate the First Amendment.

Unfortunately, CUP’s Electronic Mail Policy disregards that constitutional obligation. With regard to “[a]ll electronic mail sent, received or stored on the university electronic mail system,” the policy prohibits the transmission of any “inappropriate messages,” including any “sexually suggestive” material “that a reasonable individual may find personally offensive or inappropriate” as well as any “offensive messages” more generally. This extraordinarily broad policy leaves faculty and students at risk of punishment—up to and including “dismissal from the University”—for sending virtually any message the content of which offends another person.

Even among “reasonable individuals,” what is offensive, particularly in matters of sex and sexuality, varies widely from person to person. For example, when Jihad Daniel, a religious Muslim student at William Paterson University, received an unsolicited group email from a professor about a “lesbian relationship story,” he was deeply offended and asked not to receive such emails in the future. In that case, it was actually Daniel’s expression of offense that was the subject of university disciplinary action, but the case illustrates the fact that a blanket ban on “personally offensive” messages will undoubtedly encompass a great deal of constitutionally protected speech.

Indeed, FIRE’s case archives are littered with examples of faculty and students facing discipline for emails containing nothing more than protected expression. At Colorado State University-Pueblo, Professor Tim McGettigan’s email account was deactivated after he sent students and faculty a message criticizing the university administration’s plans to terminate up to 50 positions at the school. McGettigan’s email compared the layoffs to the Ludlow Massacre, a 1914 attack on striking miners and their families that resulted in numerous deaths. In defense of its actions, CSU-Pueblo cited safety concerns, deeming McGettigan’s reference to the Ludlow Massacre to be threatening.

At Glendale Community College in Arizona, a professor was placed on administrative leave and threatened with termination because he emailed George Washington’s Thanksgiving address to the college community, using a link to Pat Buchanan’s website where Buchanan also discussed his views on immigration and other topics. The link to Buchanan’s website offended a number of the professor’s co-workers, who filed harassment complaints with the college.

As you can see, FIRE’s concern over a restrictive email policy like CUP’s is far more than hypothetical. If faculty and students can be terminated or dismissed from the university simply for sending an email that offends someone else’s personal sensibilities, academic freedom and free speech are severely compromised. For these reasons, CUP’s Electronic Mail Policy is our June 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 speechcodes@thefire.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, join the FIRE Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Schools:  California University of Pennsylvania