Foundation calls out USU for free speech restrictions

According to a study by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) called “The Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011,” USU was rated lowest in regard to students’ free speech protections.According to the FIRE mission statement, its goal is to “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.” These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience.The study’s aim, according to the foundation, is to educate students about their rights and empower them to take action against institutions if necessary to protect these rights.Universities are ranked green, yellow or red based on the level of their restrictions on free speech.Since FIRE created the survey in 2005, there has been a decline of universities represented in the “red light” category of free speech, according to the foundation. USU, however, was not represented in this decline and is still one of the universities given poor marks for the protection provided to students’ First Amendment rights.While the survey did examine some private universities, it focused primarily on public universities because, according to FIRE, “public universities are legally bound to protect students’ right to free speech.”Samantha Harris, a FIRE lawyer and Princeton University alumna, is the author of the Spotlight on Speech Codes survey. “As a red-light university, Utah State has already gotten a letter from FIRE … just making them aware, particularly as a public university, of their obligation under the First Amendment,” Harris said.One example of USU’s violation of First Amendment rights, according to the study, is found in the “USU Residence Life” handbook in the portion that states students may not display alcohol-related, “neon advertising materials.” This could be considered a small matter, but Harris said it is a “violation to free speech.”The FIRE website outlines several instances in which the USU handbook specifically interferes with students’ rights. One example cited states, “All interactions with faculty members, staff members and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency and a concern for personal dignity.”Harris said, “Civility codes have been held unconstitutional by federal courts … they’re obviously very admirable goals, and they are things a university should certainly encourage students to do, but there is a difference between encouraging and mandating.” Harris said there are often issues in which students become passionate, and people may rally.

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