Freedom to err

University policies violate students’ free speech rights

Earlier this month,  the College of William & Mary earned a "green light" speech code rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). William & Mary is one of eleven schools in the nation to be granted green light status for removing "serious threats to students' free speech rights in the policies on that campus." While still maintaining policies against discrimination and harassment, William & Mary successfully revised the legal presentation of those policies to ensure that their enforcement would not limit constitutionally protected speech on campus. The University, on the other hand, lags in the protection of students' First Amendment Rights in comparison to William & Mary's recent reforms. According to FIRE, the University deserves a "red light" rating (the lowest speech code rating) for implementing policies "that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech."

A great difficulty exists in maintaining the balance between protecting freedom of speech while simultaneously maintaining the rights of individuals to learn in an environment free from undue harassment. Unfortunately, University policy has chosen to err on the side of the politically correct and placed students' First Amendment rights in statutory jeopardy by allowing policies to stand that limit the content of free speech on Grounds. According to the office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, "The University is committed to supporting the exercise of any right guaranteed to individuals by the Constitution and the Code of Virginia and to educating students relative to their responsibilities." While those sentiments are noble, the implementation of school policy runs counter to the stated ideals of this institution. The problem lies in a number of ambiguously worded University statutes regarding harassment, bias, and electronic expression.

The most disturbing of University policies currently in place is one against bias that encourages the "reporting of bias complaints so that [the University] can investigate the alleged facts for possible violation(s) of University policy, including the Standards of Conduct, and refer such complaints to law enforcement to determine whether an independent investigation for violation(s) of criminal law is warranted." The danger in that policy is encompassed in the definition of a bias complaint which bars students from participating in, among other activities, vaguely defined "acts of bigotry." While a student behaving in a close-minded manner is morally regrettable, the idea that the University reserves the right to censor this type of activity boarders on absurdity. The University is an institution for higher learning where all ideas can be voiced. When a communication is generated that falls under the definition of constitutionally protected speech, University authority should never intervene to restrict the opinion. Individuals possess the sole responsibility for countering the argument.

One of the negative consequences of statutes that arbitrarily grant the University the power to regulate expression is that often the University in turn delegates that power to student groups. These student groups, such as the University Judiciary Committee and Student Council, can then wield this authority to push their own political agendas. For instance, in 2008, Student Council used the University's policies banning bias as justification for denying the Edmund Burke Society status as a Contracted Individual Organization (CIO) on Grounds. Student Council justified their decision by claiming that the Burke Society practiced intellectual segregation because of a clause in their constitution which stated that the club was for "conservative-minded students." Student Council used the broadly defined bias statute found in University policy to limit constitutionally protected rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

By attempting to eliminate the likelihood of bias against certain segments of the population, the University created a policy tool that is used to discriminate. The institutionalization of discrimination through the restriction of speech on Grounds is worse than any discrimination which would have persisted otherwise. As Jefferson commented, "Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men, governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons." The University's speech code has given the University establishment the power to restrict legal speech through punitive measures. This goes against the basic democratic principles of both the University and the Constitution.

The purpose of anti-bias statutes like the University's are certainly admirable; however, the punitive powers attached to their enforcement are counter-productive. When the power is given to the University establishment to decide what constitutes inappropriate language, the University is simply exchanging one form of bias for another. That institutional bias proves a far greater danger to truth than the harm caused by individuals that discriminate. Increasing the diversity of opinions decreases this risk by allowing for the un-prohibited expression of alternative voices. The University should follow the example set by William & Mary and revise their speech codes so that legally-protected speech can be voiced without punitive consequence.

Ginny Robinson's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at

Published November 4, 2009 in Opinion

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Cynthia Bell
(06/11/10 3:02pm)

Kudos to Ginny for such a well-written piece! We need more students on college campuses nationwide writing and fighting for First Amendment rights.

Kirby Thomas
(06/11/10 3:03pm)

Kudos to Ginny on a great piece! College students should be afforded every liberty guaranteed in the US Constitution. Only then can colleges be the marketplaces of ideas that they should be. The University of Virginia should hold to the vision of its great founder and defend all liberties.

Joseph H Quintano, Ed.D. U.VA. 64 and 74
(06/11/10 6:59pm)

now that is the kind of journalistic research and logic that stands out in the CD and I only wish there were more such hacks writing and researching and investigative reporting on the grounds. Free speech is free speech under the law period. It reminds me of the comments enlisted from a reporter of the Jewish faith that asked off the record and informally so she thought what the solution to the Palastine problem was and she said exactly what she thought about it to answer his question. Then the media howls about her answer and stirs up all kinds of hatefull reactions totally disreguarding her so called free speech rights under the law. Hey folks you may not like what someone has to say when asked about something but hive the decency to respect their free speech rights to say what they believe even if you do not agree with their response.

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