UNC's policies may limit free speech

The University’s written procedures for sexual harassment, tolerance and other policies could be interpreted as a violation of First Amendment rights, according to a recent study.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonpartisan organization that advocates for the protection of civil liberties at universities, conducted the study, which defined campus censorship as university policies prohibiting speech that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment.

Campus censorship often occurs in the form of obscenity, harassment, anti-bullying, tolerance and Internet usage policies, said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research for FIRE.

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The 2012 report outlined certain aspects of UNC-CH and other schools’ policies that threaten free speech. The study gave green, yellow and red light ratings to 392 public and private universities.
Only 14 of the colleges surveyed received green light ratings, the rating given to schools whose written policies did not threaten free speech.

UNC-CH received the yellow light rating because many of its written procedures are “vague” and could be interpreted as campus censorship, Harris said.

“Because of (several policies’) vague wording, it is also difficult for students to know exactly what is prohibited and what is allowed, which leads to a chilling effect on student speech,” she said.

An example of one of these policies is the University’s Instrument of Student Governance — a policy that governs the Honor Court’s actions. The policy prohibits conduct that “abuses … or otherwise interferes with another so as to adversely affect academic pursuits.”

“This is very vague,” Harris said. “What does it mean to have an ‘adverse effect’ on someone’s opportunities to benefit from University life?”

Winston Crisp, UNC-CH’s vice chancellor for student affairs, said he is comfortable with the yellow light rating because the University’s policies focus on conduct rather than speech.

“I understand that adverse effect could be applied loosely and be problematic,” he said. “But we are talking about actions that make it difficult for people to access education.”

Red light ratings were given to 256 of the 392 schools surveyed for policies that FIRE said restrict freedom of speech. Five UNC-system schools received the red light.

FIRE’s website cited Appalachian State University’s harassment policy as one of the reasons for its red light rating. The foundation said the policy prohibits “offensive behavior” instead of sexual harassment.

The Office of Equity, Diversity and Compliance at ASU includes sexual innuendos, sexually explicit questions and repeated requests for dates with someone who isn’t interested as sexual harassment.

But according to FIRE’s report, sexual harassment is deemed by U.S. Supreme Court rulings as extreme and repetitive behavior that interferes with a person’s ability to receive an education.

Linda Foulsham, director of the office at ASU, said the red light rating was completely unwarranted.
The instances would only be determined to be sexual harassment after applying the facts of a particular situation and individual review, she said.

The University of Virginia, one of the 14 colleges that received a green light rating from FIRE this year, had a sexual harassment policy similar to ASU’s, and it received a red light rating for the policy in 2010.

But after hearing a speaker from FIRE, UVA’s Dean of Students Allen Groves said he began altering the school’s policies, which he said were too broad and punished offensive speech but not necessarily sexual harassment.

Tolerance and civility policies are other procedures in which UNC-CH, N.C. State University and East Carolina University violate the First Amendment, according to FIRE’s report.

Harris said schools should encourage tolerance but not mandate it, because schools cannot limit speech to only the inoffensive.

Contact the State & National Editor at state@dailytarheel.com.

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