FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for March 2014: Western Kentucky University.
Western Kentucky’s (WKU’s) Computing Ethics Policy (PDF) prohibits the use of university email resources for “[t]ransmitting statements, language, images or other materials that are reasonably likely to be perceived as offensive or disparaging of others based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, religious or political beliefs.” The policy also prohibits the use of university email for “advocating religious or political opinions.”
This policy effectively shuts down open discourse over the university’s email system and threatens academic freedom by severely restricting what students and faculty members can say—and how they can say it—when discussing important political and social issues. If you offending someone else on the basis of religious or political beliefs os prohibited, and students and faculty can’t express religious or political opinions, how can any discussion of religion or politics take place over the university’s email system?
If you look at WKU’s course catalog, there are a number of courses that essentially could not be discussed over email according to the plain language of the policy. For example, a course entitled “Politics Outside the Box” “provides insight in the social construction of power by investigating political symbols, characters and argument in popular culture and public policy.” Or consider the “Life of Jesus” class, which offers “[a]n investigation of the nature, content, and major interpretations of the sources for the life and teachings of Jesus.” If students must fear discipline for inadvertently offending someone or expressing a personal opinion about politics or religion, they cannot possibly engage in the type of free and open debate about these topics that should characterize the university environment.
And of course, students do not use university email only to discuss their coursework. WKU recognizes this: It does not ban the use of university email for personal correspondence. Instead, it impermissibly discriminates against student expression on the basis of viewpoint. According to the policy, you are perfectly free to express your opinion on issues of race, sex, sexual orientation, and so forth—so long as your opinion is not one that might offend others. At a public university like WKU, this is viewpoint discrimination that violates the First Amendment. As the U.S. Supreme Court held in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995):
For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses.
No university that claims—as WKU does—to value free speech should severely restrict students’ right to express themselves over email. And no university that is legally bound by the First Amendment—as WKU is—can maintain such a blatantly viewpoint-discriminatory regulation. Consistent with its legal and moral obligations, WKU must revise this policy immediately.
For these reasons, WKU is our March 2014 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 FIRE’s Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You can also add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.