Happily, Associated Students of the University of Oregon (ASUO) Senate Vice President Miles Sisk seems to be having trouble carrying out his threat to report anonymous bloggers to the administration. Nevertheless, students at UO still have reason to worry about their freedom of speech on campus.
Two weeks ago, Sisk characterized students criticizing Senate members on the internet as “cyber-bullying.” According to UO student newspaper the Daily Emerald, Sisk demanded that blogs engaging in this speech be shut down, and he threatened to report the IP addresses of those running the blogs to the administration if they remained online. Sisk called the bloggers “criminals,” and Senate President Rebecca Rhodes called the blogs “completely unacceptable.”
The Daily Emerald wrote that “[t]he exact blogs in question have not been revealed, but repeat offenders ASUO Conservative Problems and ASUO Progressive Problems — which created controversy in the ASUO last year — are suspects.” Though FIRE staff members haven’t combed through the entire archives of the Tumblr blogs at issue, we’ve checked out quite a few posts and have yet to find even one that comes anywhere close to containing true threats or other speech that would be unprotected by the First Amendment at a public university like UO. (Feel free to decide for yourself, using the links above.) Of course, the burden is on would-be censors like Sisk and Rhodes to demonstrate how the specific expression they would shut down or punish is unprotected. There’s no suggestion in any reporting on the issue that Sisk or Rhodes have even attempted to do so.
What Oregon students should be most concerned about is the fact that their elected leaders are trying to censor criticism of student senators rather than simply responding to the opinions expressed on the blogs or inviting students to discuss their remarks further. Sisk seems unable to distinguish between statements that might hurt someone’s feelings and harassment or other punishable conduct.
It’s not surprising that Sisk would have this trouble, however. After all, the UO administration doesn’t seem to understand this distinction, either. UO maintains several speech codes that are either unconstitutionally broad or can easily be used to punish protected speech. For example, UO’s harassment policy prohibits “[u]nreasonable insults, gestures, or abusive words” that may cause “emotional distress”—a range of expression far broader than what is considered harassment under the law.
And as FIRE wrote earlier this year, UO charged a student with five conduct code violations (including harassment) this past spring for jokingly yelling “I hit it first” at a couple below her dorm room window. The charges were dropped only after FIRE wrote to the university—and even after that, UO stubbornly insisted that the student’s “behavior may be a violation” of the student conduct code.
Chicora Martin, Assistant Dean of Students, offered some insight into what kinds of harassing behaviors would engender action on the part of the university.
“We don’t have a specific code by which we deal with cyberbullying, and online or not, we go by the same criteria. If the content is perceived as threatening either physically or emotionally, there could be formal conduct charges brought,” Martin said. She recommended a reviewal of the student code of conduct for anyone seeking clarification regarding unacceptable behavior and the potential sanctions.
Martin’s statement that UO might punish “content … perceived as threatening … emotionally” is consistent with UO’s (unconstitutional) student code of conduct. But it is inconsistent with UO’s legal and moral obligation under the First Amendment to uphold students’ rights to free expression. This is not just a legal issue, but a question of common sense. Any substantial criticism could affect a person emotionally. Freedom of speech means very little if it excludes the right to frankly criticize elected leaders for fear that it will have a negative impact on those leaders’ emotions.
FIRE hopes that students speak out to defend their rights. UO should have taken steps to revise its speech codes long ago, and it is now obvious that its students are learning the wrong lessons about how free speech works in America. It is essential that students be able to voice their opinions about those in power—even anonymously—without fear of reprisal.