This week, the University of Virginia (UVa) confirmed that it had eliminated the last of its policies that unconstitutionally restricted the free speech of students and faculty members. While more than two-thirds of the nearly 400 institutions researched annually by FIRE maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech, UVa is now a proud exception, having fully reformed four speech codes. UVa has now earned a coveted “green light” rating from FIRE.
In today’s press release, Greg heaps well-deserved praise on UVA: “President Teresa Sullivan and her staff should be commended for making these simple but important changes to guarantee the First Amendment rights of students and faculty members at the University of Virginia. Within three months of taking office, President Sullivan has overseen the transformation of UVa from a school that earned FIRE’s worst ‘red light’ rating for restricting protected speech to our highest ‘green light’ rating. We hope that more colleges will follow UVa’s sterling example and reform their codes to protect free speech.”
FIRE began working with UVa in April 2010 after a FIRE lecture on free speech at UVa, which was hosted by UVa student groups Students for Individual Liberty and Liberty Coalition. FIRE detailed objections to UVa’s speech codes at the time in a letter to Dean of Students Allen W. Groves on April 7. UVa student Virginia Robinson, a 2010 FIRE Summer Intern, also helped persuade UVa to reform its speech codes.
First, Dean Groves reformed UVa’s “Just Report It!” “bias reporting” system to promise students that protected speech will not be “subject to University disciplinary action or formal investigation” even if it is reported. Then, Assistant Vice President for Information Security, Policy, and Records Shirley Payne removed unconstitutional language from a policy prohibiting Internet messages that “vilify” others and mailing list messages that are “inappropriate.”
Finally, UVa’s Women’s Center confirmed that it had removed two policies with unconstitutional examples of “sexual harassment” from its website. The examples stated that “jokes of a sexual nature,” “teasing,” and even mere “innuendo” constituted sexual harassment. The policies further suggested that simple flirting could be sexual harassment if it was not “wanted and mutual,” and that if a person felt “disrespected,” their experience “could indicate sexual harassment.”
UVa now joins its fellow Virginia public institution The College of William & Mary (W&M) in an elite group of 13 “green light” schools. W&M earned its “green light” in October 2009. FIRE is now turning its attention to three more Virginia public universities, including George Mason, which has a “red light” policy, and James Madison and Virginia Tech, which have “yellow light” policies that threaten free speech.
Administrators in Virginia and nationwide who would like to make their colleges and universities true marketplaces of ideas can find their schools’ speech policies in our Spotlight database, read FIRE’s short pamphlet on Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies, and work with FIRE to reform their speech policies. FIRE also has thousands of students and faculty members in our Campus Freedom Network who can be strong allies for free speech on campus.
George Mason, James Madison, and Virginia Tech, it’s time to step up and join the free speech club. Meanwhile, the people of Virginia can take pride in the fact that now two of the state’s public universities have led the way for free speech.