The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) just released their “annual list of America’s Best Colleges for Free Speech.” FIRE does great work in promoting free speech on college campuses, but I’ve often been critical of their ratings system for missing some campus policies that restrict free speech. In my book, Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies, I noted how one of the “green light” colleges praised by FIRE had one of the worst speech codes I’ve ever seen.
So I decided to examine the policies of just the first college of the seven praised by FIRE for its free speech, James Madison University. And I found many, many policies that are poorly written and limit student freedoms. Here’s a sample:
“The university has the right and obligation … to prohibit the use of its name, finances and office equipment and supplies for any political purpose at any time.” The notion that a university has the “obligation” to ban the use of its computers for political advocacy by students and staff is simply absurd, and a clear violation of free speech.
“The student as a citizen has the rights of… freedom from…personal abuse.”
No, they don’t. No citizen has the right to be free from personal abuse. Personal abuse can be free speech.
“Each student has the responsibility to act in a manner that is conducive to learning by: being prepared, prompt, attentive and courteous in all academic settings (including classrooms, laboratories, libraries, advising centers, departmental and faculty offices, etc.) and by complying with requests made by a faculty or staff member in an academic setting.”
It needs to be clarified whether this “responsibility” is merely an admonition or an enforceable provision. And it’s not true in any case: if a faculty member asks a student to help cover up criminal activity, the student has an obligation to report it, not to obey staff members.
“James Madison University reserves the right to hold students accountable for certain types of off-campus behavior. Disciplinary action will result if a student’s behavior compromises the educational atmosphere or mission of the institution. Examples of such off-campus behavior would include, but not be limited to, crimes of violence, sexual assault, and/or alcohol or drug violations, as determined by the Office of Judicial Affairs.”
This is a common but still disturbing violation of student rights. A term like “compromises the educational atmosphere” is extremely vague and unnecessary, and the fact that it is not limited to criminal activity makes it worse.
And a number of the long list of policies of James Madison University raise concerns:
J5-100: “Any misuse of university network or computing resources or services is expressly prohibited. Examples of misuse include but are not limited to the following activities:…personal abuse.” Personal abuse, as I’ve noted, must not be banned.
J8-100: “Regardless of proximity to campus, no student shall cause, incite or participate in any disturbance, including but not limited to excessive noise, that interrupts the orderly operation of the university and/or infringes on the rights of community members.” Like most disorderly conduct bans, this is a very vague rule (what is “orderly” and what exacts are the rights of others?), and the “participation” clause seems to suggest that an individual need not actually cause a disturbance but merely be around someone who does.
J16-103 “Conduct that seriously and/or repeatedly affects an employee’s or student’s performance or creates a hostile work or study environment.” This is a little too broad: the harassment standard should be creating a hostile environment that seriously affects work/study performance, and not quite so many “or” clauses. Under this wording, conduct that did not seriously affect a student and did not create a hostile environment would still be punishable as harassment if it was repeated.
J17-100, “the university prohibits any situation created intentionally to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule.” Although this is part of the hazing rule, it seems to be independent of the limited hazing circumstances of an initiation rite, and could apply to anyone. As such, it’s far too vague and broad.
J26-103 “No student shall direct expressions that can be reasonably anticipated to incite a violent reaction from an individual or group of individuals at anyone.” The old “fighting words” doctrine has long been discredited by free speech advocates as far too repressive.
J36-101 “No student or student organization shall engage in advertising or selling any goods, services or tickets, nor shall they solicit for any purpose whatsoever on university property or in university buildings, without first obtaining the written approval of the coordinator of clubs and organizations.” As written, this means that a student newspaper must get approval to run advertising, and an administrator could simply ban a key source of income for a student newspaper.
So does this mean that James Madison University is a terrible place for free speech? Absolutely not, and neither are most of the colleges criticized by FIRE for having speech codes. JMU has a number of good aspects (such as a statement of student rights, and good due process protections). The key to enhancing free speech on campus is having good speech codes, and good enforcement of them. And while it’s good to see FIRE praising colleges with good policies, FIRE needs to be more critical of these flaws instead of praising these colleges uncritically.