EUGENE, Oregon, August 28, 2014—In a victory for free speech, the University of Oregon (UO) dropped the unconstitutional conduct charges it filed against a student based on a four-word joke wholly protected by the First Amendment. UO’s reversal comes barely 24 hours after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE’s) press release drew national attention to the university’s embarrassing treatment of the student.
“We’re pleased that the student is no longer weighed down by these chilling disciplinary charges and can focus on her education,” said Peter Bonilla, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “UO’s quick action here illustrates something we’ve long recognized at FIRE: Universities are seldom able to defend in public what they try to do in private.”
The student in question (who wishes to remain anonymous) was visiting with friends in a UO residence hall on June 9 when she jokingly called out the suggestive comment “I hit it first” to a male and female she saw walking outside her friends’ window. The couple complained to the building’s Resident Assistant and the student promptly apologized. Nonetheless, on June 13 the student received a charge statement informing her that, on the basis of her four-word joke, she faced no fewer than five disciplinary charges from the university.
UO’s meritless and unconstitutional disciplinary charges included harassment, disruption, and disorderly conduct. FIRE wrote to then-UO President Michael Gottfredson on August 1, calling on the university to dismiss all charges against the student and revise its unconstitutional speech policies. UO’s harassment policy, for example, prohibits “[u]nreasonable insults, gestures, or abusive words” that may cause “emotional distress.” This falls far short of the legal standard requiring harassing conduct to be “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive” as to effectively deprive the target of educational opportunities or benefits.
UO did not respond to FIRE’s August 1 letter or to a previous June 5 letter regarding its problematic speech codes. In an August 27 article on the student’s case in The Register-Guard, a UO spokesperson defended the university’s Student Conduct Code as “appropriate” and claimed that it “doesn’t conflict with speech laws,” despite FIRE’s overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Later that day, however, UO informed the student via email that it was removing the charges against her. While still claiming that her “behavior may be a violation” of the UO Student Conduct Code, no record of the incident will be noted in her file and no further action will be taken.
“We commend UO for dropping its case against this student, but there is still work to be done,” said Ari Cohn, Program Officer for Legal and Public Advocacy at FIRE. “This case illustrates how easy it is for students to find themselves in trouble for even innocuous speech based on the subjective whims and sensibilities of administrators or other students. We hope UO will revise its speech codes to ensure that another case like this does not arise in the future.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.