Free Speech Series

Syracuse University speech codes are too strict, according to outside organization

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Syracuse University has been given a "red" free speech rating from FIRE.

Editor’s Note: Over the past month, The Daily Orange has collaborated with the Department of Newspaper and Online Journalism at Syracuse University on a series of stories relating to free speech.

Syracuse University is synonymous with the color orange. But according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, SU is red.

The organization more commonly known as FIRE has given Syracuse University a “red” free speech code rating. According to their website, a “red light university has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech”.

SU currently has two red lights policies, three yellow light policies and three green light policies. FIRE last revised their report for SU April 3, 2017. The university recently worked to revise its acceptable use policy and anti-harassment policy, but there are still unsatisfactory policies.

“In order to improve from a red to a yellow light, Syracuse must adopt a consistent definition of harassment that does not include a large amount of protected speech,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s Vice President of Policy Research, in an email. “Syracuse currently has two red-light policies, both of which relate to harassment.”

Harris explained that both the Sexual and Relationship Violence Guide and the “Know The Code” definition of harassment was too broad. “Under harassment law, conduct must do far more than ‘annoy’ another person to be punishable … it must create a hostile environment,” she said.

Harris did not say whether FIRE had heard from Syracuse University administration officials, but said that FIRE has worked with schools on improving speech codes in the past. “We would be thrilled to work with the administration on revising Syracuse’s remaining speech codes, and would love to hear from someone.”

“I think FIRE’s ratings are pretty legitimate. I don’t think they’re overly aggressive. The universities that get these ratings are getting them for a reason,” said Professor Roy Gutterman, who serves as director of the Newhouse School’s Tully Center for Free Speech. “I think they do a good job of tracking policies and telling the rest of the world what these policies are.”

A recent protest on campus with regards to the issue of making SU a sanctuary campus led to many students walking out of classes to protest on the University Place promenade. However, the event did not trigger any action due to a violation of the campus disruption policy. Similarly, THE General Body sit-in in Crouse Hinds Hall ended after 18 days once the organization had a satisfactory meeting with University College dean Bea Gonzalez.

“It’s very troubling when the university is aggressive with policing speakers. I just did a discussion a few days ago before a screening of 1984, and it forced me to re-read the book… and the thought police kept coming up,” Gutterman said. “Every time you see enforcement of rigid policy, rigid speech policies because of statements people make, I always think of thought police.”

Syracuse University’s red light policies have the rank that they do because of their definition of harassment is too broad. The policies infringe upon speech that is still “protected,” even if it is offensive in nature. The First Amendment protects offensive speech “because that is when the majority will wield its power to censor or suppress,” according to ACLU Legal Director Steven Shapiro in a 2010 interview with NPR.

“But, what I can gather from all the policy is that there needs to be improvement on all ends of the spectrum,” said Samantha Skaller, a senior dual major in viola performance and music history who is also the Northeast Regional Advisor for the It’s On Us campaign. “I definitely think that Syracuse needs to work on their policies, especially the definitions.”

Skaller said that SU might be stuck in the middle because of contradicting legislation. Specifically, she mentioned the differences between the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act and Title IX law.

One of the university’s three green light policies is the campus disruption policy. Simply put, the policy outlines that the university “welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent,” and allows for these types of expression if it does not violate “the rights of either participants or nonparticipants”.

“If there is problematic speech, hateful speech, take a Milo Yiannopoulos example,” said Kathleen Feyh, an assistant professor in the department of communication and rhetorical studies. “I think it is actually the responsibility of the university community rather than the university administration or any sort of official body like police, etc., to shut that sort of thing down.”

Feyh is also an activist who has participated in many different protests on campus. Having joined the faculty in fall 2015, she stated that she thinks regulations on student groups are tighter at SU than at the previous institutions she taught at. Feyh has worked at the University of Texas at Austin, a red light institution; Southwestern College, which has no FIRE rating; and St. Edwards University, which is not even listed on the FIRE website.

The suppression of speakers makes it difficult for worthwhile debate to occur on college campuses. The university atmosphere is meant to espouse different viewpoints, and serve as a unique venue for discussions between differing viewpoints, according to Gutterman.

“If we do not argue with each other, then we stick to our little private enclaves, which I’m sure any university administration would find more peaceful,” Feyh said. “That is hardly part of the mission of education and certainly not particularly democratic.”

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