The American university is thought of as a place where minds are opened and ideas are shared.
But most universities have speech codes in place that “prohibit expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
USF St. Petersburg is one of these universities.
The FIRE defends student speech and liberties on campuses across the U.S. They have a database that rates each universities speech codes, policies they say inhibit free speech on campus as protected by the U.S. Constitution. They review speech codes and rate universities with green, yellow or red lights.
When the FIRE reviewed USFSP this semester, they gave a red light rating, meaning that university speech codes have at least one policy significantly restricting free speech. In USFSP’s case, three policies were given the red light and two were given a yellow.
Receiving a red-light rating is common at public universities. In Florida, 10 universities have red-light ratings, and three have yellow-light ratings. Only one university, the University of Florida, has a green-light rating.
Azhar Majeed, the director of the FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, spoke with The Crow’s Nest about the ratings given to USFSP.
Literal interpretation of speech codes like the ones at USFSP means that students can be punished for speech protected by the constitution, Majeed said.
“It teaches students the wrong lessons about democracy in a free society,” Majeed said. “It creates a harmful chilling effect on campus discourse.”
Majeed has seen punishment for students who violate speech codes vary from campus to campus. Some students are forced to write apology letters. Others are barred from registering for classes for a semester, which Majeed believes interferes with the student’s ability to get a quality education. But most troubling to him is that record of the student’s punishment goes into their student file.
“That’s something that follows you into your educational career and into your professional career,” Majeed said.
All the red light policies at USFSP are a part of the overall USF system codes and not specific to the St. Petersburg campus itself. Only one yellow light code is specific to USFSP.
The Crow’s Nest contacted Jodi Adamchak of the Office of General Counsel for the USF system about the codes.
“We do update them on a regular basis,” Adamchak said. She refused further comment.
Jacob Diaz, the dean of students at USFSP, said student’s freedom of speech is important to the university.
“We want to uphold First Amendment rights,” Diaz said. “That’s key.”
Diaz said he has worked with the FIRE at previous universities, and he always takes their perspective into account when reviewing policies. He also shows the policies to students and asks them for their feedback.
“I always find that to be an engaging conversation,” he said.
The intention of the codes is not to chill speech on campus, Diaz said.
When it comes to dealing with student conduct, Diaz said he determines if behavior is in violation of the policies. Then, he confronts the student and engages them in conversation, asking them to take responsibility for their actions. Rarely does the student have to attend a formal hearing process, which is the next step.
Two red-light codes deal with sexual harassment on campus, an issue that has received heightened attention on university campuses this year. A third deals with discrimination and harassment.
“The spirit of them is that we want the community to be safe and whole,” Diaz said.
“The FIRE completely recognizes that public universities have the position to protect students from sexual harassment,” Majeed said. “But the Supreme Court has laid out clear standards.”
The standards Majeed refers to are found in the 1999 decision Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education. The Court ruled that punishable conduct would be unwelcome behavior “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.”
USF codes punish “conduct which may be interpreted as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” Majeed said this definition is too vague and may punish protected speech.
The codes also punish sexually-oriented jokes, which are protected by the First Amendment, Majeed said. He encourages students to counter speech they dislike instead of the university prohibiting it.
The codes include examples of behavior such as sexually-oriented jokes, something Diaz said the FIRE bristles at.
“They think that if I (the student) do carry out any of those examples, I’m going to be punished by the university,” Diaz said. That’s not the spirit of the codes, he said.
UF’s codes were flagged by the FIRE for similar reasons. UF’s code called “Sexual Harassment FAQ” was edited in August to reflect the standards set by the U.S. Supreme Court. The change bumped UF’s rating to a green-light.
The only USFSP specific yellow-light code is found in the student code of conduct, under the student rights section. It says students have “the right of respect for personal feelings, freedom from indignity, and to expect an education of the highest quality.”
Majeed said he sees policies like this at many universities across America.
“As we tell students and administration all the time, no one has the right to have freedom from indignity,” he said. “That’s just not protected by the First Amendment.”
Diaz said this code is listed as a student right, not a policy.
“This isn’t necessarily a policy that we could be in violation of,” he said.
The perspective of the FIRE is important to Diaz.
“I think what FIRE does is good so far in it complicates thinking,” Diaz said. Their ratings allow universities to critically analyze their codes.
The codes rated by the FIRE
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education rated USF St. Petersburg’s speech codes, and gave it an overall red-light rating. This means that USFSP has at least one speech code that the FIRE believes inhibits freedom of speech. Most of the codes are a part of the USF system, and not specific to USFSP. Here are the codes the FIRE has called to question, including the one code specific to the USFSP campus.
USFSP-specific code (received a yellow-light):
Student Conduct: Student Rights 14-15
“The right of respect for personal feelings, freedom from indignity, and to expect an education of the highest quality.”
Red Light Codes:
USF System Code of Student Conduct: Sexual Harassment 14-15:
“Sexual Harassment – Behavior which falls into any one of sections listed below as 4.14 (a), (b), or (c):
(4.14)(a) Conduct which may be interpreted as unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”
USF System Policy 0-004: Sexual Misconduct/Sexual Harassment (Including Battery) 14-15
“A. The following actions are prohibited:
- Sexual harassment by or between any faculty member, staff, or student, including individuals of the same sex.”
“B. Examples of prohibited conduct include, but are not limited to:
- Displaying or telling sexually oriented jokes, statements, photographs, drawings, computer images, web sites, videos, slides, graphics, calendars, cartoons, e-mails or other communications.”
“A. Sexual Harassment (which includes sexual violence) is any of the conduct below:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when: … Such conduct is sufficiently severe or pervasive so as to alter the conditions of, or have the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with, an individual’s work or academic performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working or educational environment. This may include off-campus acts of sexual harassment that have effects on campus which may contribute to a sexually hostile environment.”
USF System Policy 0-007: Diversity and Equal Opportunity-Discrimination and Harassment 14-15
“B. Examples of Prohibited Conduct Include, but Are Not Limited To:
- Writing or displaying letters, notes, or e-mails which are derogatory toward any individual’s race, color, marital status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or veteran status.
- Making comments, slurs, or jokes which are derogatory toward any individual’s race, color, marital status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or veteran status.
- Making gestures or displaying pictures, cartoons, posters, or magazines which are derogatory toward any individual’s race, color, marital status, sex, religion, national origin, disability, age, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or veteran status.”
Other Yellow Light Policies:
USF System Student Code of Conduct: Harassment 14-15
“Harassment – Conduct which creates an unsafe, intimidating or hazardous situation that interferes with the ability of a USF System student or employee to study, work, or carry out USF System functions.”
To view these codes on the FIRE’s website, visit http://www.thefire.org/schools/university-of-south-florida-at-saint-petersburg/.