The incoming president should reevaluate current University speech codes to obtain the green light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education
Last week, Students for Individual Liberty hosted Adam Kissel from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) who spoke to a group of students about speech codes on college campuses. The University continues to receive FIRE's lowest designation of red light for the University's policies on freedom of expression. According to FIRE, "a red light university has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech." Although there are dozens of issues that President-Elect Teresa Sullivan will have to address next year, she should certainly make the University's stance on freedom of speech a priority.
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. Because the University is a public institution, it is bound by the First Amendment and can be taken to court when it violates the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. 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.
FIRE should sound familiar to third- and fourth-year students, because it was with FIRE's assistance that the Edmund Burke Society was established at the University. FIRE intervened after Student Council denied the Burke Society status as a contracted independent organization based on a clause in the society's constitution that stated the organization was for "conservative-minded students." FIRE pointed out to 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.
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.
The University must protect all speech guaranteed in the United States Constitution. To do otherwise not only violates the law and reflects poorly on the University, but also violates the University's own stated policies concerning its support of freedom of expression. Having policies that genuinely protect speech would not only be a huge win for students, but would also have positive ramifications for the University's image. How nice would it be for the University to be able tell new and prospective students that it has received a green light from an organization that fights for free speech on college campuses? Sullivan should not waste any time on this matter and make guaranteeing students' rights to free speech one of her top priorities.
Megan Stiles' column appears Wednesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.