Red light, green light
USF, Florida public universities receive ‘red light’ on free speech policies
Published: Monday, July 8, 2013
Updated: Monday, July 8, 2013 02:07
When students organized a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Trayvon Martin last February, conflict occurred between the student organizations and university administration over whether a permit for the event would be granted, according to USF alumnus and former Students for Democratic Society (SDS) President Matt Hastings.
Organizers of the event were told by administrators they would be charged $650 to host the event on campus due to the university viewing the event as a community event with non-USF student organization involvement.
“We explained how unfair this was and finally got them to back off,” Hastings said. “USF thought it would be a bunch of community members who were going to come to this event, and the students weren’t doing any work for it, just the outside group.”
The event was able to take place, and Hastings said the majority of the 60 attendees were USF students. Throughout the planning process, however, he said student organization leaders felt that they were facing difficulties in having their concerns addressed and heard by administrators at the university.
“When you have USF administrators emailing you and calling you up, threatening you with hundreds of dollars of fines and disciplinary action, you’re going to be a little scared, and you’re not prepared to stand up to that,” he said.
But Hastings isn’t the only one concerned about his free speech rights being restricted.
A recent national study found USF is just one of many colleges with policies that restrict freedom of speech.
USF, along with six other Florida public universities, were categorized as “red light” schools based on an evaluation of each school’s policies by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization founded in 1999 to help protect fundamental rights of college students, such as freedom of speech and self-expression.
The remaining four universities were listed as yellow light schools.
The FIRE evaluated 11 free speech-related policies at USF last February, two of which were categorized as red light policies.
“Unfortunately, a majority of the universities we rate, including public universities, do have red lights,” Harris said. “Given that it’s only two (red light policies at USF), one thing that I always like to tell people is that we’re happy to work with administrators and students at schools towards policy reform, and we’ve done that at a lot of universities.”
Harris said the policies at USF that have red light distinction can be fixed easily based on editing the wording chosen and the examples used within the policies.
“With the University of South Florida’s policies, they’re pretty easy to fix because they’re saying examples of prohibited conduct include x, y and z,” Harris said. “What they would need to do is either get rid of the list of examples or if they do want to provide examples, just make clear that the list of prohibited conduct is tied to the definition.”
Examples of what is prohibited include the sexual harassment and discrimination policies, Harris said, which can be free speech protected by the First Amendment.
“In the sexual misconduct policy, the definition itself would be fine, but then it provides a list of what is prohibited,” she said. “On that list is ‘displaying or telling sexually-orientated jokes, statements, photographs, drawings, computer images, websites, videos, slides, graphics, calendars, cartoons, emails or other communications.’ So it basically prohibits all sexually-oriented speech.”
Harris said the case is the same with the university’s policies on discrimination and harassment. The policy prohibits “writing or displaying letters, notes or emails which are derogatory towards any individual’s race, color or marital status.”
“It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to think of the political or ideological opinions that people might express in the course of legitimate academic debate that someone else might perceive as derogatory,” Harris said. “If you wrote an email in which you expressed an opinion opposing affirmative action for example. All of those certain hot button topics have strong feelings on both sides, so someone may perceive someone else’s opinion or statement as derogatory, but that in and of itself does not make it unprotected speech.”
These policies are problematic, Harris said, because institutions can face legal problems due to these policies, and students can have their First Amendment rights suppressed by universities who enforce policies that conflict with free speech.
“A public university can be sued,” Harris said. “If a student who is disciplined under these policies feels they were disciplined for constitutionally protected speech, they can bring a First Amendment challenge.”
According to the USF Student Organization Handbook, the university has the authority to review events, such as the one Hasting’s group organized, proposed by student organizations that are considered controversial or popular — i.e., musicians, films, debates or lectures — among other categories according to the policy.