UVA AND FIRST AMENDMENT RIGHTS
January 18, 2011
Concerned parents looking to send their kids to a college free from repressive speech codes can now add another option to their list. Last semester, the University of Virginia (UVA) eliminated the last of a series of policies that unconstitutionally restricted the free speech of students and faculty members. Two-thirds of the nation's colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. But now, UVA is an exception to the rule having fully reformed four speech codes over the course of the last year.
President Teresa Sullivan should be commended for overseeing these important changes, which guarantee the First Amendment rights of students and faculty members at the University of Virginia. Within just three months of taking office, President Sullivan has overseen the transformation of UVA from a school that earned FIRE's worst “red light” rating for restricting protected speech to their highest “green light” rating. But there is another UVA administrator who deserves even higher praise than President Sullivan.
FIRE began working with UVA administrator Dean Allen Groves in April 2010 after Adam Kissel gave a lecture on free speech that was hosted by two UVA student groups - Students for Individual Liberty and Liberty Coalition. Shortly thereafter, Dean Groves received a letter from FIRE, which provided detailed objections to UVA’s then-existing speech codes. UVA student Virginia Robinson happened to be interning for FIRE in the summer of 2010. Thus, she was able to help UVA reform its speech codes.
First, Dean Groves reformed UVA's “Just Report it" so-called bias reporting system. He made sure students were aware that protected speech will not be "subject to University disciplinary action or formal investigation" even if it is reported.
Next, Assistant Vice President for Information Security, Policy, and Records Shirley Payne removed unconstitutional language from a policy prohibiting Internet messages that "vilify" others and mailing list messages that are "inappropriate." Removing such overly broad and vague language helped remove a possible chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.
Finally, with the help of Dean Groves, UVA's Women's Center confirmed that it had removed two policies with unconstitutional examples of "sexual harassment" from its website. Some examples stated that "jokes of a sexual nature," "teasing," and even mere "innuendo" constituted sexual harassment. The policies further suggested that simple flirting could be sexual harassment if it was not "wanted and mutual," and that if a person felt "disrespected," their experience "could indicate sexual harassment."
This is all good news as UVA joins its fellow Virginia public institution The College of William & Mary (W&M) in an elite group of just 13 “green light” schools in America. Those schools include the following (listed in alphabetical order):
Black Hills State University
Bucks County Community College
Carnegie Mellon University
Cleveland State University
Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania
The College of William and Mary
University of Nebraska - Lincoln
University of Pennsylvania
University of South Dakota
University of Tennessee - Knoxville
University of Utah
University of Virginia
Now that Virginia’s two leading public universities have led the way FIRE is turning its attention to three more Virginia public universities that currently have "red light" ratings. Hopefully, they will follow suit. If not, suits could follow. I wrote in my last column about the increasing likelihood that college administrators will be faced with paying personal monetary damages. It is sad that such threats are even necessary. There is much to be gained by voluntarily abandoning these oppressive policies.
Like Dean Groves of UVA, other administrators around the nation can attend a FIRE lecture if one is scheduled at their school. If that doesn’t happen this semester or even this year they can simply read FIRE's pamphlet on Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies. The pamphlet contains all the information that is needed to comply with the law. And FIRE is more than willing to assist if any questions or complications should arise. After administrators make the necessary changes they are sure to receive much praise for their efforts. Just ask UVA’s President Sullivan and Dean Groves. I am just one of many who have taken the time to praise them publicly. Better yet, the alums who hear of these changes will be far more likely to open up their wallets and make much needed donations.
The time has come for administrators to turn a potential legal liability into a fund-raising asset by reforming speech codes now. Taking a stand against politically correct censorship is always the right thing to do. And with donations down, it could become a political masterstroke.
We believe that the Constitution of the United States speaks for itself. There is no need to rewrite, change or reinterpret it to suit the fancies of special interest groups or protected classes.