With students having shifted to online learning during COVID-19, FIRE is highlighting a selection of the college and university policies nationwide that most seriously restrict students’ online speech. Today, we’re looking at one of the nation’s worst email policies: The IT policy at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.
Below, we’ve included a link to the policy, as well as a link to information in our Spotlight Database — which tracks speech codes at over 450 schools across the country — so you can learn more. Cheyney’s policy below receives FIRE’s worst Spotlight rating: a “red light,” meaning the policy clearly and substantially restricts student speech.
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania
Excerpt (emphasis ours):
This policy applies to the Information Technology (IT) resources in offices, classrooms, labs, residence halls, etc. both on-campus and off-campus, all electronic media, including but not limited to: campus and State System of Higher Education networks and systems, electronic mail, listserv and mailing lists, discussion groups, social networks, Internet and World Wide Web access, electronic records. …The following practices should be followed when using university e-mail: a) No person shall harass others by sending annoying, threatening, libelous, sexually, racially, or religiously offensive messages. This includes all materials deemed offensive by the existing university cold [sic] of conduct laws.
Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, a public university bound by the First Amendment, is legally required to uphold free speech on campus. Yet, it has this policy in place — which seriously threatens students’ expressive rights. Specifically, Cheyney’s policy is vague and impermissibly overbroad.
Vague policies fail to properly define their terms. Here, “annoying” and “offensive” are highly subjective terms that mean different things to different people. They have no legal definition and are therefore impossible to objectively police.
Vague policies are also often found to be overbroad. Precisely because their terms lack definition, they frequently limit too much conduct, sweeping in protected speech in the process. That’s what appears to be happening here. Cheyney purports to ban “annoying” and “offensive” messages without giving students any information on what kinds of expression might qualify. Accordingly, protected speech could likely fall within the policy’s purview. These kinds of overbroad policies are bound to chill student speech, incentivizing students to remain silent rather than risk punishment.
Cheyney’s policy is also extremely broad in scope, reaching all student conduct “on-campus and off-campus,” on every imaginable electronic platform, in every conceivable scenario. It purports to police protected student speech in situations in which students should be completely free from the oversight of campus administrators, such as within their private social media posts or personal, off-campus email exchanges.
Yet under this policy, Cheyney could, for example, punish a student’s private, off-campus emails to their parents that an administrator deemed “annoying”; or a student’s romantic social media message to a significant-other, or a message rejecting someone on a dating app — provided an administrator found it “offensive.” This is unacceptable at a public university bound by the First Amendment.
The good news is that FIRE is here to address and help fix bad speech codes. FIRE would advise Cheyney in this instance to focus instead on limiting “substantially disruptive” emails, which is a narrower way to target “annoying” messages — without impacting protected speech. Likewise, banning “harassment” or “obscenity” — both legally-defined categories of speech unprotected by the First Amendment — should take care of the kind of offensive content the university seeks to limit — without censoring protected expression in the process. We’d be happy to work with Cheyney to further bring its policies in line with best practices.
And FIRE can help at your college or university, too. If you’re a school administrator, student, or faculty member who wants help with crafting or fixing a policy at your institution, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you believe your rights have been infringed under such a policy, go to our website to submit a case.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a multi-part series pointing out the country’s worst IT policies. Policies selected for this series either broadly apply to students posting/sending online content on or off campus or specifically target students’ social media use.