It is not uncommon for colleges to contradict themselves on freedom of expression, making elaborate statements about the right to freedom of expression to their students, while at the same time enforcing policies that infringe those rights. It is rare for a school to make this contradiction in a single sentence, but the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh does just that, making it FIRE & # 39; s voice tag of the month receiver for May.
YOUR Oshkosh's "Shared Principles to Guide Interactions Between Members of the University Community" policy states:
All members of the university have a responsibility to promote and the right to expect … an environment free from harassment and free from offensive and demeaning remarks and profanities based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, military status, socio-economic status, family status or political views; and consistent enforcement of federal, state, and university protections against discriminatory treatment, but free of any official speech codes.
Thus, students have the right to expect an environment free from offensive and demeaning comments and of official speech codes? Those principles are incompatible, which makes the policy worthy of FIRE & # 39; s worst, "red light" rating.
YOUR Oshkosh needs to clear this up.
FIRE defines a "speech code" as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society as a whole. That means that UW Oshkosh's policy itself is basically a speech code!
Comments that individuals find offensive or demeaning based on certain characteristics are usually protected by the First Amendment, as the Supreme Court has made clear speech cannot be limited on that basis alone. Such comments could be part of an expression or conduct that is not constitutionally protected, such as a "real threatMade about a particular group. But a policy that effectively prohibits all subjectively offensive comments is too wideas it also includes many protected communications, such as a tweet about the position of another political club on campus.
The policy extends this conflicting principle by stating, "When observing discriminatory behavior or hearing offensive remarks, every effort is made to protect the victim (s) and witness (s) from further harassment." Does this mean that the university will respond to any case of alleged & # 39; offensive remarks & # 39; whether they are part of a pattern of behavior that Harassment or not?
YOUR Oshkosh needs to clear this up.
FIRE & # 39; s Policy Reform team, working with universities to review their policies to better protect students' freedom of speech, recently launched our & # 39;Model Speech PolicySource, including FIRE-recommended policy language for specific types of speech codes we encounter on a regular basis. (You will notice that we have not used the term 'Model Speech Codes' for the source – there is no model way to restrict speech that would be protected by the First Amendment in society as a whole!)
To provide an example of a statement of community principles for that resource that does not restrict protected speech, we chose a University of Southern Mississippi policy, the "Southern Miss Standard. The policy states in the list of shared principles that “(i) mplicit within the Southern Miss Standard is … A respect for language that is appropriate, never obscene, and that does not demean or intimidate. following explanation in advance:
The Southern Miss Standard was developed to embody the values we hope residents possess. At the same time, the university is strongly committed to freedom of expression. Consequently, these principles do not constitute university policy and are not intended to interfere in any way with a resident's personal freedoms. However, we hope that residents will voluntarily subscribe to these common principles, thereby contributing to the traditions and scientific heritage of those who have gone before them, leaving Southern Miss a better place for those who follow them.
With this introduction, the university makes that clear to students encourage By adopting certain values, including respect for language that is not demeaning, the university is also strongly committed to students' freedom of expression, and these values do not constitute university policy.
UW Oshkosh would do well to apply similar language in its Shared Principles policy (and to its other restrictive policies), so that students can be sure that they are not subject to an official speech code after all.