FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2016: DePauw University in Indiana.
DePauw’s Acceptable Use and Electronic Communications Policy provides, in relevant part:
Electronic communication facilities shall not be used to access or transmit electronic communication which promote or contain offensive, unlawful or inappropriate content, including, but not limited to content that is slanderous, defamatory, harassing, vulgar, threatening, intimidating, offensive, or that promotes hate or violence; or which is racially inflammatory or inappropriate; or which is pornographic, or sexually offensive; or which consists of offensive comments based on gender, or any other content that denigrates or demeans persons on the basis of race, age, gender, national origin, disability, religion, sexual orientation or any basis protected by law. This prohibition shall not apply to educational and professional work that requires such access or transmission.
Even with the disclaimer about educational use, this is an exceedingly broad and restrictive policy that leaves students and faculty vulnerable to punishment for a wide range of expression that, off campus, would be protected by the First Amendment. Although DePauw is private, the university’s statement on “Student Rights, Responsibilities and Freedoms” provides that “free inquiry and free expression are imperative” to the university’s mission—a statement wholly at odds with the university’s extreme restrictions on electronic expression.
I recently gave a guest lecture to a class at the University of Northern Colorado about technology and free speech, and in preparing my lecture, I was reminded of the many cases FIRE has had involving students and faculty punished for their online expression.
There was Colorado State University – Pueblo professor Tim McGettigan, who was punished after sending an email to student and faculty listservs notifying them of an upcoming demonstration against planned employee layoffs. In his email, he metaphorically compared those planned layoffs to the Ludlow massacre, a 1914 attack on striking Colorado miners and their families—a comparison the university declared to be somehow threatening.
There was Colorado College student Thaddeus Pryor, who was suspended for two years for a six-word comment, intended as a joke, that he made on social media. In November 2015, Pryor responded to the comment “#blackwomenmatter” on Yik Yak by writing, “They matter, they’re just not hot.” Colorado College found that Pryor’s post violated its policies and suspended him from the college until August 28, 2017.
There was Syracuse University law student Len Audaer, who ran a satirical blog—modeled after The Onion—making fun of life at Syracuse’s law school. The blog included obviously fake quotes from students and faculty, plus a disclaimer that “no actual news stories appear on this site.” Nevertheless, he was charged with harassment and threatened with expulsion.
These are just a few in a long line of FIRE cases involving students and faculty punished for online expression. With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at DePauw’s policy on electronic communications.
The policy prohibits using the university’s networks to transmit or even access material that—by some undefined, subjective standard—is “offensive” or “inappropriate.” These terms are so broad that they could mean anything the administration decides they mean, leaving all controversial or unpopular expression subject to potential discipline. The policy also prohibits communications that are “racially inflammatory” or that “denigrate” or “demean” anyone on the basis of a protected characteristic. These provisions could be used to silence expressions of opinion on political and social issues. Consider, for example, the fact that DePaul University (not to be confused with the similarly named DePauw) just banned its College Republicans from posting pro-life “Unborn Lives Matter” posters on the grounds that doing so “provokes the Black Lives Matter movement.”
DePauw’s policy on electronic communications is wholly inconsistent with the free speech rights it promises to its students and faculty. For this reason, it is our October 2016 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.