Last week, University of Virginia (UVA) student Megan Stiles published an excellent column in The Cavalier Daily, UVA’s student paper, calling on incoming UVA president Teresa Sullivan to "reevaluate current University speech codes to obtain the green light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education."
The policies in question deal mainly with the University’s definition of sexual harassment. The University’s policy is very broad and includes certain speech, which may be distasteful and inappropriate, but it is nevertheless still protected speech. This includes "jokes of a sexual nature," "gestures of a sexual nature" and "sexually suggestive e-mails." Although these types of expression may be vulgar and distasteful, in most situations they are still forms of protected speech.
She also notes UVA’s obligation to uphold the First Amendment because UVA is a public university, and she discusses the legal risks of ignoring that obligation. Then Stiles launches into an excellent exposition of the social and educational value of freedom of speech, which is worth quoting in full:
Freedom of speech is one of the most cherished freedoms of our country. It can be unpopular, however, because it protects both popular and unpopular viewpoints. If only the majority had a right to be heard, then fewer people would be able to speak out against the government or politicians. Today, there are still countries where you can be prosecuted for engaging in uncensored expression. With the right to free speech comes the inevitable consequence that some speech will offend others. When you are offended by someone’s speech, you are afforded the right to counter that speech. This free exchange of ideas is what makes America great and protecting the right to freedom of speech should be the University’s top priority. Freedom of speech, after all, is the cornerstone of an education. We are all here to learn and that includes the inclusion of many different opinions that may challenge our own. This is part of learning and should be embraced.
Stiles recalls FIRE’s 2008 defense of the Edmund Burke Society, then a nascent student group at UVA struggling to obtain recognition from the university because the group’s constitution stated that it was for "conservative-minded students":
FIRE pointed out to [the Student] Council that its stance violated the student[s’] rights to freedom of association. If the University does not change some of its free speech policies, it will only be a matter of time before the University will come under fire and potentially be hit with a huge lawsuit.
For these reasons, Stiles calls on her university to join The College of William & Mary as a green-light institution. William & Mary received that status after former FIRE intern and CFN member Braum Katz worked through the student government to persuade the university to change all of the school’s problematic policies.
The University must change these policies and join William & Mary, which is currently the only university in Virginia — public or private — that has received FIRE’s top status as a green light institution. Not only is the University bound by the First Amendment, but it also claims to promote free speech of its students and faculty, stating that "the University values and embraces the ideals of freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom of expression." Sullivan should make it one of her priorities to change the University’s policies so that those grandiose statements factually reflect the atmosphere of the University.
Stiles closes by pointing out the incredible potential benefit to UVA’s image if it abolishes its speech codes.
How nice would it be for the University to be able [to] tell new and prospective students that it has received a green light from an organization that fights for free speech on college campuses?
An added benefit is that FIRE would sing the university’s praises from the mountaintops, as we did for The College of William & Mary, telling prospective students that UVA is one of a handful of institutions of higher learning that has made it clear in its policies that it upholds the free speech rights of its students. We encourage President-Elect Sullivan to heed Stiles’ suggestion.