University of Oklahoma refuses to end compelled speech in diversity training program

May 5, 2021

Last fall, FIRE discovered that the University of Oklahoma was running an online mandatory diversity training program for faculty and staff members — including some graduate students — that required trainees to acknowledge their agreements with the university’s approved political viewpoints in order to complete the requirement. FIRE pointed out that this was compelled political speech and asked OU to change the training. In an email to FIRE last week, OU officially refused to do so.

FIRE first wrote to OU on Nov. 16, 2020, bringing the university’s attention to FIRE’s concerns about this violation of trainees’ rights of free speech and freedom of conscience. Our letter explained that the First Amendment protects the right to speak, but also the right not to speak. Accordingly, we called on the university to either make its diversity training optional or allow participants to still complete the training while selecting the answers that most closely reflect their beliefs, without punishment.

Indeed, it would be so easy to fix this problem that OU’s refusal to do so suggests that, in fact, the compelled speech is the point of the exercise.

It is FIRE’s custom to reach out to universities privately at first to give them a chance to make changes without being subjected to public opprobrium. But after months went by with no response to our letter, FIRE publicly wrote about the situation to add further pressure on the university to comply with its obligation to respect student and faculty First Amendment rights. This time, OU responded quickly, claiming to have previously responded to us — though we had not received a response — stating that it would consult with its software vendor, EVERFI, to discuss FIRE’s objections.

On April 26, we heard back from OU, which said officials at the university consulted with EVERFI regarding FIRE’s concerns that the training unconstitutionally requires participants to express university-approved viewpoints. EVERFI and OU dismissed FIRE’s concerns, emailing, “OU’s diversity, equity, and inclusion training does not impose specific ways of thinking, but instead, presents situational examples of how to engage with the broader world in a way that is understanding of all people and perspectives.”

Unfortunately for OU, we have seen a video of its faculty and staff diversity training, and according to that video OU does require students and faculty to select a university-approved response to viewpoint-based questions. For example, the training includes a hypothetical situation where the participant must respond to a colleague who says he’s “tired of all of this transgender stuff.” The student or faculty participant — who, again, is required by OU to complete this training — must select that the best response out of the choices given is: “You seem upset. What’s the matter?” If they select a different answer, the video automatically rewinds, compelling them to select OU’s preferred answer in order to continue and finish the training. 

It’s hard to see how this could be seen as anything other than unconstitutional compelled speech, given that it comes from a state agency, the University of Oklahoma. OU’s response from last week, interestingly, does not even deny this. Rather, it says, in pertinent part, that “OU’s diversity, equity, and inclusion training does not impose specific ways of thinking…” (Emphasis added.) This is arguably true, as OU can’t literally control people’s minds. It’s also completely beside the point, as the state’s forcing you to express something you don’t actually believe is not just unconstitutional on its own, but also a gross violation of freedom of conscience.

In its email to FIRE, the university also pledged to “continue to monitor its training efforts while continuing to advance the university’s work of engaging community members in a meaningful learning experience with the goal of fostering a more inclusive campus community.” Given the ease with which this compelled speech issue might be fixed, FIRE is very skeptical. Indeed, it would be so easy to fix this problem that OU’s refusal to do so suggests that, in fact, the compelled speech is the point of the exercise.

OU Students at Parade Gau Meo/Shutterstock.comAt a public university, requiring students and faculty to express agreement with the university’s position, viewpoint, or values runs headlong into the First Amendment right against compelled speech. (Gau Meo / Shutterstock.com)

Needless to say, this isn’t over. FIRE has already submitted a public records request for OU’s contract with EVERFI and any correspondence between OU and EVERFI since we sent our Nov. 16 letter. Perhaps we will receive a more transparency-friendly response to this request. When we originally requested access to the training, OU said we could see it, but only if we traveled to Norman, Oklahoma, to view the training in person. This, for a training OU delivers online to its own students and faculty.

Nevertheless, it’s not too late to fix this. We continue to be willing to work with the University of Oklahoma — or any other college or university — to provide guidance on how best to comply with its legal obligations and its clear commitments to respect student and faculty members’ expressive rights. 

Likewise, we encourage any students and faculty at a college or university in the U.S. who find themselves compelled to agree with university-approved viewpoints to submit a case to FIRE.


Schools:  University of Oklahoma

Cases:  University of Oklahoma: Mandatory Diversity Training Requires Compelled Speech