Utah State University comes under fire from student-rights watchdog who says school’s policies threaten free speech

National group called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education claims Logan school’s policies threaten free-speech rights, while USU says administrators are reviewing a change to ‘encourage‘ rather than mandate civility.

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) The Old Main Building at Utah State University. USU was highlighted as "Speech Code of the Month" by the students-rights organization FIRE.

A national free-speech advocacy group is highlighting the policies of Utah State University in Logan this month, but not in a good way.

The Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, named USU as ‘Speech Code of the Month’ on Thursday, citing a campus rule that students be civil in their interactions with classmates and faculty.

“A lot of speech that is not necessarily considered civil or respectful is still fully protected by the First Amendment,” said Samantha Harris, FIRE’s vice president of policy research.

Harris said that civility is subjective, meaning a rule like USU’s is open to the interpretation of administrators. And while the policy may be well-meaning, Harris said, it could have a chilling effect on students engaging in otherwise protected forms of speech.

“As long as you have restrictive speech codes on the books, even if they’re not being enforced, student’s free speech rights essentially exist at the whim of the administration,” Harris said.

USU’s student code of conduct includes a provision that “All interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.”

The policy is currently under review, USU spokesman Tim Vitale said, and an update has been drafted that would replace “shall be” language with a clause that students are encouraged to act with civility.

“I’m assuming that will be fine with FIRE,” Vitale said. “The bottom line here is we champion free speech rights of everyone. Our position is clear and unequivocal.”

Harris said the proposed changes would “completely” resolve FIRE’s concern.

“I think civility is important,” she said. “Schools are more than within their rights to encourage students to engage with one another and with faculty in productive and respectful ways.”

FIRE keeps a database of colleges and universities, color-coded based on the relative protections or restrictions of free speech in campus policies. USU is currently rated as red — the poorest rating from FIRE — meaning the school has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

USU’s red rating is based on the civility policy, as well as campus housing rules that prohibit students from teasing, demeaning or insulting others and require students to keep dorms and apartments “clean and attractive.”

Harris said the policies represent worthy goals, but do so in broad and subjective terms.

“If you prohibit and can theoretically punish any speech that someone else finds subjectively insulting,” she said, “then that really gives the university leeway to punish a wide range of speech.”

Vitale said some provisions in USU’s housing policy have already been updated, and that administrators are currently conducting a comprehensive review of the student code.

Within USU’s FIRE rating, the school gets a green label — FIRE’s best — for rules related to student demonstrations. Individuals are allowed to gather, picket and distribute literature in public areas of the campus as long as they avoid behaviors such as obstructing traffic, damaging property or threatening the health and safety of others.

“First Amendment rights are paramount, but always in the context of safety,” Vitale said. “We will keep both things in mind as we make decisions about free-speech issues.”

When the Utah Legislature convenes next month, lawmakers will consider a resolution affirming the right of civil liberties and free speech on the state’s college and university campuses. The resolution is sponsored by Salt Lake City Sen. Jim Dabakis, a democrat, and West Jordan Rep. Kim Coleman, a Republican.

“I think most people value civility,” Coleman said. “The challenge Is when government tries to define ‘civility’ and then restricts or punishes speech that it deems uncivil.”

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