In a victory for free speech on campus, the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) has promised to eliminate a speech code that FIRE identified as our “Speech Code of the Month” for July 2013. The promise comes just days after FIRE Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris challenged the policy on FIRE’s website, writing that the code is overly broad and violates the First Amendment, which UCA—as a public university—must uphold.
FIRE defines a “speech code” as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Each month, FIRE features a particularly restrictive speech code as its Speech Code of the Month.
The policy (PDF) in question at UCA most notably listed among its offenses “annoying” another person. This prohibition directly contradicts the U.S. Supreme Court’s holding that
freedom of speech, though not absolute is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest. [Emphasis added.]
Explaining why the code is so troublesome, Samantha wrote last week that “students have no way to know what might be punishable since the policy conditions the permissibility of speech entirely upon the subjective reaction of the listener. What might seem like a lively debate to one person could be extremely annoying to another person.”
UCA’s speech code also prohibited students from making “disparaging remarks directed at another individual on Facebook, MySpace or other internet site.”
In an email statement to Campus Reform, UCA’s interim general counsel, Katie Henry, said that the school will eliminate the troublesome language from the policy.
“The administration has reviewed the language in the University’s Student Handbook,” wrote Henry. “The University will revise the 2013-2014 Handbook to delete the words ‘annoying’ and ‘disparaging’ from the section ‘offenses Subject to Disciplinary Action.’”
FIRE is pleased that UCA has acted quickly to revise this policy. However, the school still maintains two additional “red light” policies and a handful of “yellow light” codes, according to FIRE’s Spotlight database—a system that uses “red,” “yellow,” and “green” identifiers to rate how well policies at colleges and universities across the country comport with the First Amendment. FIRE encourages UCA to revise the problematic language in its remaining policies so that it can become Arkansas’ first “green light” institution.