According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), the University of Rhode Island has policies in its student handbook that restrict free speech.
In an email sent to select students across 111 different public universities across the country, the organization “delivered a warning to public colleges and universities with highly restrictive speech codes: Revise the policies or risk a First Amendment lawsuit and personal liability.”
The organization rates universities and their policies on a scale of green, yellow and red lights. “Green light” institutions have the least restrictive policies. “Yellow light” ratings are for institutions whose policies “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression.” “Red light” ratings are for institutions that have one or more policies that “clearly and substantially restrict free speech,” according to the FIRE website.
FIRE gave URI the speech code rating red, the lowest free speech rating. URI has two policies that are “red light” policies, the “Sexual Harassment” policy under the Student Code of Conduct, and the policy on “Bias-based Incidents” under the Community Standards of Behavior. Additionally, the university has one yellow light policy, “Respect for University Functions, Policies, and Procedures” under the Student Code of Conduct, and one green light policy, the Statement of Student Rights.
Azhar Majeed, director of policy reform at FIRE, explained that the sexual harassment policy received a low rating because the policy, as it’s currently written, is too broad.
The policy, under the Student Code of Conduct, states “Sexual Harassment is any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.”
Majeed said that the part about any conduct of an unwelcome nature could be restrictive, for example, even “if someone says something about a viewpoint that they don’t like.”
The policy cites examples about sexual jokes, comments and innuendos, as well as sexually explicit pictures. The way the policy is currently written, Majeed said, comments that are individual instances and not repeated occurrences could violate the policy. However, individual instances of conduct like this are not legally considered sexual harassment, and would violate free speech.
“The Supreme Court defines student-on-student sexual harassment as severe, pervasive and objectively offensive,” Majeed said. This was ruled in the 1999 case of Davis v. Monroe, which decided that any public institution, including public universities, should use “severe, pervasive and offensive” as the criteria for sexual harassment.
Dean of Students Daniel Graney explained that policies in the handbook go through a process that involves both student and faculty input. Every two years, these policies are revised through the Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee. They must also follow state and federal guidelines regarding sexual harassment, while taking into consideration the community standards of the university.
“It’s a balancing act,” he said.
Graney realizes that some policies may be broad, but that is not without purpose. The broader the policy, the easier it is for the university to navigate any situation that may arise. “That is to be inclusive to all of the different things out there that could be seen as discriminatory or offensive,” he said.
Majeed said the bias-based incident policy violates free speech for its broad definitions.
The policy states “a bias-based incident is one which has a negative effect on an individual or group and which is based on or motivated by bias against race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, disability or age.”
“This prohibits any content that has a negative effect on a person or group,” Majeed said. “[It’s] a broad and nebulous standard. If you say someone upsets you, that’s so broad.” He suggested that requiring that conduct be severe would improve the policy.
The “Respect for University Functions, Policies, and Procedures” section received a yellow light rating largely because of enforcement, Majeed said.
The policy states “visitors to the campus, students, staff, or faculty wishing to publicly address the University community at other than a University-sponsored event must first check with the Memorial Union scheduling office to ensure that the time, place, and manner of the address does not interfere with normal University functioning.”
Majeed argues that this “should not be the case,” and that people should not have to check with the university before protesting.
It’s one thing to require approval because of using certain facilities or a larger speaking event, Majeed said, but in this instance, he hopes the university would narrow the application of the policy. “There’s nothing wrong with involving coordination, but if you’re out on the quad, [you] should not have to obtain prior approval,” he added.
In any situation that a campus community member may have violated a university policy, Graney said there is always an investigation.
“It all comes down to how the policy is enforced,” Graney said. “There are always checks and balances in place if a student feels they’re being unfairly targeted or that their rights are being violated, there are mechanisms in our process that give them the opportunity to appeal or address that.”
Graney added that there are many offices on campus where students can go for help depending on the situation, including Title IX, the Office of Student Affairs or Human Resources.
In regards to prior approval before protesting, Graney said that students and faculty do not have to obtain prior approval, but outside groups must notify the university. They can be rejected, Graney said, not based on the content of their demonstration, but instead may be rescheduled because of other events that may be happening on campus.
He said the university tries to work with student groups who want to have protests or demonstrations. “It’s a safety component. [We’re] not infringing on people’s rights to protest, we just want everyone to be safe,” Graney added.
Graney said that this is not the first time FIRE has reached out to the university regarding its policies.
URI President David M. Dooley said he values students’ First Amendment rights, and noted that having policies that best reflect URI’s standards as well as federal standards is an ongoing process.
“The community at URI still affirms the rights to share these views, but also affirms other people’s rights to disagree with you,” Dooley said. “We want to be always open to critique and suggestions as to how to better fulfill our education mission and how we can better help our students to succeed. We want to encourage students to be involved in the conversation.”