Coverage of FIRE’s most recent speech code report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2012: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses, keeps rolling in. Recently, student newspapers at the University of Georgia (UGA) and Utah State University (USU) joined those campus outlets that have drawn attention to FIRE’s review of their institution’s policies on student speech.
"UGA received a ‘red light’ rating mainly because of its email policy," said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at FIRE. "It prohibits any profanity, obscenities or derogatory remarks in electronic mail messages. Given the volume of student communication that takes place over email, this policy seriously restricts protected student speech."
UGA’s poor Spotlight rating is all the more cause for concern given the university’s checkered past regarding free speech in practice. UGA has had a couple of memorable FIRE cases in recent years, and its "red light" email policy remains a constant threat to students’ expressive rights.
The FIRE website outlines several instances in which the USU handbook specifically interferes with students’ rights. One example cited states: "All interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency and a concern for personal dignity."
Harris said there are often issues in which students become passionate, and people may rally.
"Those interactions may not always be civil or courteous," Harris said. "I think that’s an important point for universities to understand. Universities are absolutely free to encourage – as much as they want – students to uphold certain values and to interact with others certain ways. The problem is when they cross that line into requiring it, and you can be punished if you are not civil or courteous."
Happily, though, it appears there is the possibility of policy reform at USU through the student government (ASUSU):
"Knowing that we are in the red, I, as student advocate, would love to see us in the green," said Jason Russel, ASUSU student advocate.
[S]tudents who are interested in changing the student handbook’s current policies should talk to Russel or any other administrator, Russel said.
"If students want to change something, they can do it," Russel said. "If students come to us, we can change things, we can make things happen."
I hope the student newspaper coverage at UGA and USU spurs speech code reform at both schools. Our thanks to The Red & Black and The Utah Statesman for their efforts.