University of Florida Revises 2011 Speech Code of the Year; Many Problems Remain

January 12, 2012

Just one day after FIRE announced that the University of Florida (UF) maintained the only remaining Speech Code of the Year for 2011, UF deleted the offending language from its policy.

UF earned co-Speech Code of the Year "honors" for its Student Rights and Responsibilities policy, which warned students that  "Organizations or individuals that adversely upset the delicate balance of communal living will be subject to disciplinary action." Precisely what would be deemed to upset this undefined "delicate balance"—and, therefore, what students would be punished for saying or doing—was left completely to the discretion of administrators. This impermissible vagueness meant that students were left without any way of knowing beforehand what speech would and would not be prohibited. In naming this speech code one of the year’s worst in late December, Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research, wrote:

If there has ever been a textbook example of unconstitutional vagueness, this is it—there is absolutely no way for students to know what this policy actually prohibits, so they can only guess at what speech or expression might lead to discipline. What’s more, the policy is painfully paternalistic. Discipline for anyone who upsets the "delicate balance of communal living" among a group of adults? Policies like this one send a powerful message that students are too weak to live with freedom, and that the appropriate response to even the most minor offense is to run to the administration instead of directly confronting and responding to those who give offense by their words or actions. Twenty-year-olds who, instead of enrolling in college, have entered the workforce and rent a house with a group of other people must negotiate the "delicate balance of communal living" without assistance from Big Brother, and twenty-year-old college students are capable of doing so as well.

On January 4, the day that FIRE announced that UF was the only remaining Speech Code of the Year, the old language still appeared in the policy (towards the bottom, under the heading Relations Between People and Groups). The following day, the problematic language was removed, and the bottom of the webpage now states "This page was last updated Thursday, January 5, 2012." A 24-hour turnaround time—not bad! This timely revision means that just over two weeks since the University of Florida and California State University-Chico were jointly named as having FIRE’s Speech Codes of the Year for 2011, both of the speech codes in question have now been eliminated, as Chico State revised its offending policy last week.

We’re pleased with this victory—after all, this was a truly terrible policy, and UF students are in far less danger of being punished for protected speech now that it’s gone. But we must note that the university has done the bare minimum here. A number of unconstitutional restrictions remain in place at UF, which still earns a "red light" rating from FIRE for maintaining policies that clearly and substantially restrict speech covered by the First Amendment—speech that the University of Florida, as a public institution, is legally obligated to protect.

For example, UF’s "Standard of Ethical Conduct" policy (PDF) still requires that "expressions and challenges need to be civil, manifesting respect and concern for others"—a classic example of an unconstitutional civility policy. And the university still lists "[h]umor and jokes about sex that denigrate a gender" as an example of sexual harassment, without any requirement that such humor be part of a pattern of targeted, discriminatory behavior that is so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it denies the victim the ability to obtain an education. Such a definition of sexual harassment is necessary to protect free speech, as FIRE and ten other organizations noted in an open letter last week to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

In short, a more thorough, thoughtful revision of the university’s codes would significantly improve the state of free speech on UF’s campus, and the First Amendment requires it. So, while we’re happy with this small but important step, we’re asking UF to do more. FIRE stands ready to help. 

Schools:  University of Florida