Free Speech Series

University Senate still seeking final recommendations on revised free speech policy

Liam Sheehan | Staff Photographer

The University Senate, shown above in a meeting, has yet to reach final recommendations on an updated free speech policy.

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. 

A University Senate subcommittee has yet to reach final recommendations on a revised free speech policy concerning hanging posters and banners on campus. The committee missed a March deadline set by Chancellor Kent Syverud after the Policy Advisory Committee’s proposed policy was sent back for further review.

“It was the opposite of what the working group recommended in terms of free speech. It was the most restrictive policy that you would have ever read,” said said José Marrero Rosado, Student Life Committee, chair “And that’s why it came to us because it was too restrictive and people thought it limited free speech.”

In 2014, the Student Association, Graduate Student Organization, and asked the University to review parts of the Computing and Electronic Communications Policy In response, Syverud created a Working Group on Free Speech to revise the policy.

After announcing two revisions in January based on the report, Chancellor Syverud asked the Senate Agenda Committee to further review the policies and to provide further suggestions in relation to Syracuse’s Stop Bias website, reasonable person definition and the campus posting policy. He asked that the campus posting policy be reviewed by the Senate Committees for Student Life and Administrative Operation by March.

Syverud asked the committee to clarify how banners and signs can be displayed, as well as how building bulletin boards can be used.

Graduate Student Organization President Rajesh Kumar, who has been working with the Student Life Committee on the Campus Posting Policy, said they’ve been working internally, but have not reached a final recommendation. He said the committee wanted to extend the search outward, and to receive input from “people that actually post,” before crafting a policy recommendation.

The committee will release a survey in the next few days that asks Registered Student Organizations and students to respond to questions about their individual posting habits.

The survey poses questions such as: “Were you aware that there is a campus-wide posting policy?” and “Who should be approving the campus postings?”

Kumar compared the survey to his own work as Ph.D student in computer science and engineering.

“You have to know what the customer needs, before you make it,” Kumar said.

In a time of increased political unrest, Kumar sees freedom of speech as one of the most important issues that any college has to deal with.

And David Rubin, dean emeritus at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and work group chair, feels there’s still work to be done.

Rubin was critical of the two other policies regarding the Stop Bias website and “reasonable person” definition sent back to be revised.

“At this point the University seems to have ducked two of the hard free speech questions and, in typical university fashion, sent them on for more study,” Rubin said in an email.

The reasonable person definition is vital to SU’s anti-harassment policy. For speech to qualify as harassment under this policy, “the speech or conduct must be objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree that the speech or conduct constitutes harassment.”

Rubin said the reasonable person definition is crucial, because it doesn’t permit the person who hears the speech to decide if the offensive language is harassment. That would give the alleged victim too much power to limit the speech of the offender.

“Anything could become offensive to someone given surrounding circumstances to which the speaker my not even be privy,” Rubin said. “It is therefore very important that a high bar be set for the definition of offensive or harassing speech.”

The Stop Bias website, which is ran by The Office of Student Assistance, was created, in part, to “support the University’s efforts in providing an environment free from discrimination and bias-related harassment,” according to it website.

The site offers an anonymous platform for students to post about “bias-related incidents.” These incidents are defined as “are defined as behavior which constitutes an expression of hostility against the person or property of another because of the targeted person’s age, creed, disability, ethnic or national origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, political or social affiliation, race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

Using offensive language is not criminal. The website states that hate crimes and “bias-related incident” have a significant difference. Hate crimes are motivated by bias, but also include a “definable crime.”

The working group suggested that this website can be helpful in the exchange of ideas, but discourages SU’s involvement with the page. It states that the site is an example of individuals deciding for themselves what constitutes free speech.

Rubin echoed the report’s recommendations.

“These postings may be true or false, exaggerated or not, aimed at settling scores, or simple hoaxes,” Rubin said in an email. “There is no way of knowing.”

Rubin and the report condemn the idea of using or investigating people based on users’ posts to the site.

The Rubin-led working group provided several other recommendations that touched on profanity, disrupting speakers, and the aggregation of campus free speech policies.

Revisions to Syracuse University’s anti-harassment policy and the IT Resources Acceptable Use Policy took effect in January, and stemmed from the work group’s recommendations.

The policy changes came more than a year after the Free Speech Working Group submitted its 12-page report on existing free speech policies on campus. Several members of the work group felt after the submission of the recommendations that they were written off by the administration. No one on the work group was approached by the administration to be on the Policy Advisory Committee.

Kevin Quinn, senior vice president for public affairs at SU, in a statement said, “The Working Group completed its task when it submitted its final report. The members were free, as was the entire campus community, to comment on the proposed speech policies when those policies were published for review and comment.”

In an Oct. 1, 2015 letter from Syverud to the SU community, he stated that the work group went “beyond the scope” of the SA, GSO and Student Bar Association’s recommendations, and that while appreciated, that the Policy Advisory Committee should focus on those original resolutions.

“In our first meeting, we agreed that we wanted to cover every free speech policy, because it needed that review,” said Janine Bogris, SA member and undergraduate working group member.

Bogris referenced Syracuse University’s poor ranking by the Nonprofit organization Freedom
for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). SU’s free speech policies consistently rates poorly on the site, and in 2011 the site said the university was the worst school in the nation for freedom of speech. She said the working group wanted to review all policies, and that the working group felt that’s also what the university wanted.

Bogris said that members of the working group offered to do public forums to discuss their recommendations, but that the university did not respond to that offer.

“It feels like this report and discussion around free speech has fallen to the wayside, which sucks because we put a lot of time into this,” Bogris said. “Hopefully the discussion will continue.”

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