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 a private institution, not bound by the First Amendment, it explicitly guarantees its students free speech under its "Freedom of Expression Guidelines" (PDF), and must honor those commitments all the same.
Feeley’s article quotes FIRE Associate Director of Legal & Public Advocacy Azhar Majeed on the problems with the harassment policy:
FIRE attorney Azhar Majeed said this definition is restrictive because a student could be charged for harassment for disagreeing with another student if the latter alleged his opinions were defined as ‘hostile’ or ‘intimidating.’
Majeed said this definition has the potential to limit freedom of speech.
"The expression of protected speech, no matter how ‘hostile’ it is to the views of another person, should not give rise to a finding of harassment," he said. "On a college campus, students should be able to tolerate opposing views, even highly offensive ones."
However, AU can easily fix the harassment policy to meet its promises of free speech. Here, too, Feeley gets the scoop from Azhar:
Majeed said the policy on harassment could be improved by using the standard for harassment set by the Supreme Court, which defines undue harassment as "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities."
That’s not the only good news for AU. The harassment policy is the university’s lone red light speech code, and it also has just one "yellow light" policy (its "Computer Use and Copyright Policy"). In other words, AU is just one policy revision away from improving to an overall yellow light rating, and then one more policy revision away from improving to an overall "green light" rating. Those are some major strides the university can take simply by fixing a couple of policies, and we at FIRE hope it happens. After all, we would love nothing more than to welcome another university to the list of green light institutions!
Our thanks to The Eagle for its coverage. Hopefully, it will spur some discussion and thought at AU about how the university can better meet its free speech promises.