University alters rules for speech
Foundation commends administration for improving policies, removing codes prohibiting inappropriate e-mails, teasing
After being flagged as a "red light" college for issues related to freedom of speech last year, the University has reformed its speech codes to ensure that it does not abridge students' constitutional rights.
The "red light" rating - one notch above "red alert" - came from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which began critiquing the state of free speech at the top 25 universities in the country last year. The critique led the University to alter or abolish four of its speech codes, and FIRE announced Oct. 28 that it had granted the University a "green light award."
The issue of free speech came into the spotlight in April 2010 when students for Individual Liberty and the Liberty Coalition sponsored a speech by Adam Kissel, vice president of programs at FIRE. Dean of Students Allen Groves spoke with Kissel following the speech to convey the University's willingness to change any unconstitutional prohibitions on speech or any confusing wording.
Shortly afterward, Groves received a letter from Kissel detailing FIRE's concern with certain policies at the University.
Along with the letter, Kissel made sure to note that FIRE succeeded in working with the College of William & Mary in October 2009 in revising problematic speech policies, thus achieving "green light" status. "FIRE would be very pleased to help the University of Virginia reach the same constitutional standard so that it may be known as a true 'marketplace of ideas,'" he wrote.
Groves said the collaboration between the University and FIRE continued throughout the summer until consensus was reached.
One area of concern to which the University responded was the broad wording in its bias reporting policy, adjusting the system so that it is clear that the University cannot discipline or investigate students for protected speech. For example, the term "bigotry" was more clearly defined as "a report of a threat or act of harassment or intimidation - verbal, written or physical - which is personally directed against or targets a University of Virginia student."
The second reform addressed a policy about online threats, no longer including policies that prohibited students from posting messages online that "vilify" other people and sending "inappropriate messages" out on mailing lists.
The last two reforms dealt with the University's Women's Center, which removed two extreme examples of "sexual harassment" from its website. The first had stated that sexual harassment extended to "jokes of a sexual nature," "teasing" and "innuendo." The second implied that flirting could count as harassment if it was not "wanted" or if an individual felt "disrespected."
Groves underscored the importance of free speech to the University.
"We would never have punished protected speech," he said. "Whether it's our computing policy or our bias policy, we are not going to punish protected speech."
Protected speech does not include harassment or threats, Groves said, which "absolutely can be prohibited."
The University is one of only 13 universities in the nation to receive FIRE's green light recognition. Other than the College of William & Mary, nearly every Virginia university is flagged by FIRE as a "red light" concern for public speech.
James Madison University, for example, enforces "yellow light" policies such as requiring students to schedule peaceful assemblies at least 48 hours in advance. Students at George Mason University, a "red light" school, must attain permission before chalking on the sidewalks.
Kissel said the University has joined Ivy League schools such as Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania as green light schools. Such a change could affect the broader atmosphere of higher education in Virginia, he said.
"The fact that both U.Va. and William & Mary are green light schools in Virginia ought to inspire some healthy competition among their fellow public colleges and universities in Virginia," Kissel said.
Groves is confident that the recognition will bring positive attention to the University.
"It is important to me, to President Sullivan and to many other people here that the University of Virginia be seen as a place that encourages and protects free speech," he said.