Foregoing freedom?

By By Rochelle McConkie

By Rochelle McConkie

Choosing to attend Brigham Young University might mean surrendering some constitutional rights, college free-speech advocates say, but the University of Utah is not without flaws either when it comes to academic and student freedoms.

“If you sign up to go to BYU, you kind of sign over some of your rights,” said Emily Guidry, spokeswoman for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Guidry said FIRE, an organization that ranks colleges and universities according to their allowance of free speech, does not rate BYU because it does not have policies that allow for free speech, referring to the school’s Honor Code and restrictions on academic freedom.

The U received a “red light” ranking for censoring student speech because it advertises its commitment to free speech but still has some restrictive policies, such as prohibiting hate speech in the Residence Halls.

Susan Olson, U associate vice president for faculty, said BYU does not have to guarantee rights to free speech because it is a private, religious university.

“Private institutions are not covered by the Constitution,” Olson said.

BYU spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said BYU’s academic freedom and free-speech policies are in keeping with the school’s mission, which involves both spiritual and secular learning.

The official BYU academic-freedom policy, written in 1992, limits speech that “contradicts or opposes, rather than analyzes or discusses, fundamental (LDS) Church doctrine or policy,” “deliberately attacks or derides the (LDS) Church or its general leaders” or “violates the Honor Code because the expression is dishonest, illegal, unchaste, profane or unduly disrespectful of others.”

This policy came into the public view in June 2006 when BYU philosophy professor Jeffrey Nielsen was not rehired after writing a column in The Salt Lake Tribune supporting same-sex marriage.

Daniel Graham, chairman of the BYU philosophy department, said it might have been possible for Nielsen to make the statement if he had stuck to the issue instead of denouncing the LDS Church’s official position, or changed the wording of his statement.

“When you explicitly criticize the (LDS) Church and its leaders, you’re definitely out,” Graham said.

Since the incident, Graham said his department has tried to make it “doubly clear” where it stands on issues of academic freedom.

“We are affiliated with the (LDS) Church and we are supportive of (it),” Graham said. “We’re not going to go out and protect people who are going out of their way to criticize the (LDS) Church and its policies.”

Although the U does not have an honor code, it does have formal policies regulating academic freedom. Some policies require faculty members to adhere to course-related discussions instead of using class time to present their own ideas. With regards to sexual harassment, professors can use sexualized examples but cannot single out individuals to make sexual comments.

“I view these as clearly some limits on speech that are appropriate to respecting academic freedom,” Olson said.

When it comes to course content, professors can determine what material to use — but they must fully disclose that information to students at the beginning of the course. If students find the material objectionable, they can petition the professor for alternate material or drop the course, but the professor has no obligation to change the material.

This policy was added following a lawsuit in the late 1990s when U student Christina Axson-Flynn sued the school because she refused to swear in her acting class. She said asking her to do so would be a violation of her personal religious beliefs.

As part of the settlement of the case, the U agreed to create the accommodations policy requiring professors to present all material at the beginning of the course.

Not everyone rates the U poorly for academic freedom. The American Association of University Professors has listed BYU since the 1930s on their list of organizations or institutions with bad censorship records, but the U is not on the list.

BYU’s policies also came under fire when physics professor Steven Jones retired after making controversial statements about government involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Centers.

“He made it very clear that it was his decision,” Jenkins said. “(His leaving was) not regarding academic freedom, it was the process of his investigation that was in question.”

Jenkins said the school conducted a faculty survey asking opinions about academic freedom. Eighty-eight percent of faculty members said they have more freedom at BYU than at other universities because of the opportunity to explore religious subjects.

Graham said there is “quite a large room for dissent” on the issue, but the rules are publicly stated and discussed among faculty.

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