Ruling protects free speech on campus

As the issue of free speech becomes increasingly volatile in today’s society, the public eye turns toward university campuses, which have traditionally been forums for the open exchange of ideas and opinions.

The Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education ruled this summer that universities may not use federal anti-harassment laws to suppress free speech on campus.

This is a major advancement for the promotion of free speech on campus.

“OCR’s regulations and policies do not require or proscribe speech, conduct, or harassment codes that impair the exercise of rights protected under the First Amendment,” said Assistant Secretary Gerald A. Reynolds in a July memo.

“OCR has consistently maintained that the statutes it enforces are intended to protect students from invidious discrimination, not to regulate the content of speech,” he added.

This decision comes after months of escalation between U.S. universities and students who feel that their civil liberties have been compromised and their voices silenced by university restrictions on free speech.

In recent years, several students have filed lawsuits against U.S. universities contesting that these restrictions are a violation of First Amendment rights.

The most hotly debated restriction is the emergence of campus “free-speech” zones.

Some university officials feel that enforcing free speech zones reduces the possibility of harassment to students by confining potentially offensive speech to a designated area.

The OCR, however, states that “the offensiveness of a particular expression, standing alone, is not a legally sufficient basis to establish a hostile environment.”

“Harassment, to be prohibited by the statutes within OCR’s jurisdiction, must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols, or thoughts that some person finds offensive…The conduct must also be considered sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program,” said Reynolds.

Student Brandon Hill believes that the university does impose limitations on free speech, however.

He said he and other students organized support of the Student Labor Action Program’s [SLAP] initiative several years ago to organize a labor union for Norse Commons cafeteria workers.

Part of the campaign included literature and petitions, which successfully circulated campus. SLAP members also drew chalk notices on campus sidewalks one night, but when classes began the next morning, the drawings were gone. Hill feels this was a restriction of free speech.

President James Votruba said, “To my knowledge, we don’t have any speech guidelines [at NKU]. A lot of universities put guidelines for acceptable and unacceptable expressions, but I think universities ought to be bastions of free speech where students can express themselves and the clash of ideas is promoted.”

He added, “There is no effort on the part of the administration to limit free speech on campus. The only limitation would be if it began to intrude upon the academic climate [by interfering with classes].”