Mailbag: Oct. 13
UA respect for free speech lacking compared to peers
Among the three major public universities in Arizona — Arizona State, Northern Arizona and the University of Arizona — each claims superiority in a number of respects. But when it comes to evaluating these schools in terms of their respect for students’ First Amendment rights, the choice is relatively easy.
Currently, ASU is the only school that promotes freedom of speech as an integral part of the educational experience. Earlier this year, ASU eliminated its last remaining speech code, giving it a “green light” rating (meaning it has no restrictions on free speech) from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit that defends student and faculty individual rights at campuses nationwide. In fact, FIRE ranked ASU in the Huffington Post as one of the best universities in the country for freedom of speech, an honor it shared with only six other schools.
The U of A, conversely, maintains two unconstitutional speech codes: a Non-discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and a Policy and Regulations Governing the Use of Campus.
The first policy states that harassing conduct includes “verbal acts and name calling,” even though this is protected speech. Not only is this policy constitutionally suspicious at first appearance, it is vague and gives the university unencumbered discretion, because “verbal acts” means virtually any speech. The U.S. Supreme Court, in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, made clear that conduct must be so “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive” that it denies the victim equal access to educational opportunities or benefits, to count as peer harassment.
The second policy requires 24-hour notice for any gathering expected to include 25 or more people or “advertised by any medium.” This impedes students’ right to engage in campus protests, demonstrations and other spontaneous gatherings with expressive purposes. Spontaneous speech is necessary for the free exchange of ideas, as often students will not know ahead of time that they will be reacting to immediate or still-unfolding events.
Ultimately, the U of A administration needs to begin revising these two polices so that it does not stifle the same academic excellence that it so vigorously encourages.