U scores high among Utah schools in free speech rating

By By Zack Oakey

By Zack Oakey

Many of the rules and laws that govern our daily affairs were designed to protect us from harm. Obedience to traffic lights, for example, is legally binding. But what happens when rules like these become so developed and so protectionist that they end up violating other, more fundamental laws such as those that protect the rights of individuals?

Sometimes subtle protections accomplish the opposite of their intended goals, but because those protections are so popular, they go unchecked and pass by most of our skeptical minds. This is how speech codes and limitations on expression such as those that often fill university policy books are brought about.

For the most part, the authors of the First Amendment to the Constitution thought that most protections were more dangerous than their absence. The amendment states that to abridge the freedom of speech is illegal. This incorporates speech that might seem disagreeable, statements that could degrade others and words that are uncivilized, irresponsible, discomforting, humiliating and insensitive.

Luckily, the U seems to understand this idea. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit group that works to protect the individual rights of students, recently assigned a passing grade to the U’s speech policies. FIRE’s Director of Speech Code Research, Samantha Harris, said a failing grade is assigned to universities that make policies “that both clearly and substantially restrict free speech.”

FIRE said other Utah universities have not taken the U’s lead. Utah State University’s Housing Handbook, in its Community Living Declarations, obligates each member to “a code of civilized ideals, principles and responsible behaviors” including the responsibility to respect the “dignity of all persons, by not demeaning, teasing, ridiculing or insulting individuals or groups.”

Men and women in a free society are guaranteed to have the right to not respect anyone for any predetermined reason. They are told, by contract, that if they violate the property rights of others, they will be punished by law. However, when Victorian notions of “civilized ideals” and “responsible behaviors,” as mentioned in USU’s policies, have the force of punishment, the rule of law is absent by ambiguity. Anyone could accuse anyone of violating any rule without reprimand.

Similarly, Utah Valley University received a failing grade for its sexual harassment policies stating that the university will take “remedial measures” to reform people who do not actually engage in sexual harassment but whose actions “discomfort or humiliate and demonstrate insensitivity.”

According to Harris, part of UVU’s policies said, “Students who engage in what the university explicitly acknowledges is constitutionally protected speech (that is, insensitive speech that does not rise to the level of actual sexual harassment) may nonetheless be required to undergo mandatory re-education.”

Proponents of limitations on speech claim that stress caused by words equals harassment, which could cause mental harm. But this is not the policy-relevant question, as there are many stress-causing influences over the common student that are not protected either by national law or any university policy, all of which are impossible to monitor and regulate without removing all traditions of the rule of law.

We ought to be glad that our peers can be insensitive to our mistakes in the cadaver labs before we go to operate on real patients. We ought to be glad that our professors are legally protected when they are not necessarily being “civilized” in telling us that the calculus used to determine the tensile strength of bridges in an engineering course is inaccurate before we put real cars and real people on them.

U law professor Wayne McCormack said, “This issue touches two intersecting realms, one having to do with sanctions against impositions on the legal rights of another and one having to do with sanctions for protection of the institution and its interests.”

USU and UVU support their interests more than their students, whether intended to ward off future law suit liabilities or otherwise. The U does not. U policies mention no limitations of speech unless there is a clear danger to the individual’s property. Otherwise, we are left to be adults, to deal with what McCormack called “unprotected intrusions.”

[email protected]

Zack Oakey