FIRE gives SU red-light rating for restrictive free speech policies

Syracuse University received a red-light rating for policies that restrict free speech in an annual report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE gave SU a red-light rating in the organization’s seventh annual report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2013: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses.  This means SU has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” according to the report.

This is at least the fifth year that SU has held a red-light rating.

At SU, the computing and electronic communications policy is responsible for the red-light rating, said Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at FIRE.

This policy prohibits online harassment by banning “annoying, abusive, profane, threatening, defamatory or offensive” messages, according to the written policy.

Of the six restrictions on expressive rights listed for SU on FIRE’s website, the computing and electronic communications policy is the only one with a red-light rating.

“SU could reform that and have a yellow-light rating,” Harris said, noting that many schools with red-light ratings have more than one red-light policy.

The rating system relates to a school’s written policies rather than actual instances of repression. The practical effect of a red-light rating depends on individual schools and the degree to which each school enforces their written policies, she said.

Often written restrictions of free speech have a “chilling effect,” Harris said, explaining that students often read restrictive policies and refrain from engaging in certain activities.

The policy does not impose on students’ constitutional right to freedom of speech because SU is a private institution, said Lisa Dolak, a professor at SU’s College of Law.

“SU has the right, as a private institution, to impose these kinds of policies,” she said. “If we were talking about a government imposing this policy, it’s a very different situation.”

At the same time, Dolak said, the policy raises concerns about its expansiveness and reach. Vague wording in the policy, like “offensive messages,” is subject to varied interpretation and can lead to misunderstandings, she said.

“I think that this policy, like all policies, should be reviewed and reconsidered,” she said.

She also said she feels SU should try to do better or at least as well as other institutions in regard to FIRE’s ratings and protection of students’ right to free speech.

Although Kevin Quinn, senior vice president of public affairs at SU, said he hadn’t seen the report, he said he believes SU does value students’ right to free speech.

“Any unbiased look at the facts will show that Syracuse places a high value on free speech and also fostering an environment for students that is supportive and welcoming,” he said in an email.

More than half of the 409 public and private 4-year institutions in the United States analyzed in the report received red-light ratings.

“It looks like Syracuse, unfortunately, is in good company with many other colleges and universities in the United States when it comes to free speech on campus,” Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech, said in an email. “Free speech is a pretty delicate thing on college campuses everywhere these days.”

However, the number of red-light schools decreased for the fifth year in a row, from 75 percent in 2008 to 62.1 percent in 2013, according to the report.

FIRE also gave a yellow-light rating – which the report defines as having policies that could be interpreted as suppressing free speech or restricting free speech only in narrow categories — to 32 percent of analyzed schools.

It gave 3.7 percent a green-light rating, meaning the schools’ policies do not seriously threaten students’ freedom of speech.

The decreasing number of red-light schools reflects positively on the decision of many schools to improve their policies, said Harris, the director of speech code research.

“There’s also still a long way to go,” she said. “Students at the majority of colleges and universities don’t have the free speech rights that they should.”


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