If you’re a college student like me, everything you do is graded. Whether it’s homework, essays or exams, your life’s worth is measured on an “A” to “F” scale. But in the non-elected public sector, what keeps employees accountable for their work? Thankfully, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) holds universities responsible for their policies and the implications they have for constitutional rights and civil liberties. Some colleges, like the University of Chicago, have been commended for taking their commitment to free speech seriously. At the University of Massachusetts, there’s cause for concern—some policies may be infringing on free expression.
FIRE evaluates policies at colleges and universities across the country for how they treat free speech, due process, religious liberty and many of our nation’s other core civil rights. They’ve developed a rating system that uses a simple traffic light analogy to compare campus policies. Each university or college is given a general rating and each individual policy is also evaluated. Per their analysis, a “red light” institution is one that “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech” while a “yellow light” institution is “one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” Any institution of higher education whose policies aren’t found to impede on free speech or other civil liberties is given a “green light” rating. So how does UMass stack up?
At best, UMass gets a mixed review. While none of their policies set off enough alarms to be given a “red light” rating, many have been labeled as “yellow light” for their potential to infringe upon civil liberties. These include the technology policy, rules for rallies and protests, anti-bullying policies and regulations for use of property. Overall, UMass has been rated as a “yellow light” university, because their ambiguous policies leave room for “administrative abuse” and can potentially be applied arbitrarily in a way that could threaten the constitutional rights of their students.
FIRE takes particular issue with UMass’ policy on the use of technology resources. In this policy, the administration deems “Repeatedly emailing people with whom you have no pre-existing personal or professional relationship” a punishable form of harassment. Email is considered protected under the First Amendment, but is still subject to the usual exceptions, and any digital forms of criminal harassment would not be considered free speech. Yet UMass’ standard of deeming whatever “a reasonable person would consider harassment” as a violation of their policy is incredibly vague and opens the door to all sorts of misconduct, infringements and discrimination. Because it’s so vague, it could be applied unevenly. The administration could potentially hold one standard of what’s reasonable in some cases, and another standard in others. How do we know they won’t let biases or legacy factors come in to play? Policies need to be clearly defined with objective criteria, so that all students will be treated equally and see their rights respected.
The UMass policy on protests gives students a reason to be upset. In the name of “security” and “timing,” it requires that students submit protest requests three business days in advance. While this is within the bounds of the law, it steps away from the spirit of our constitutional right to assemble. In 2001, a group of students at UMass protesting against the war on terrorism were granted a permit to assemble, but a pro-war group had their permit revoked at the last minute. When the Republican Club wanted to host a controversial speaker, Don Feder, in 2009, they were hit with a nearly prohibitive, possibly unconstitutional, $444.52 security fee. But UMass’ inconsistent commitment to the First Amendment can be seen for outdoor speeches and rallies as well.
The administration has also established what are effectively free-speech zones on campus, limiting free expression on campus to specific times and places. The “use of property” policy reads, “Outdoor speeches and rallies during class hours may be held only on the west side (main entrance) of the Student Union Building, and shall be limited to one (1) hour in length, from noon to 1:00 p.m.” The First Amendment isn’t supposed to be something narrowly confinable or alterable, and shouldn’t be limited to one hour a day.
Every campus should have policies on bullying and protect students from hateful or racist abuse. But at UMass, some of these policies go too far by setting up vague standards that could potentially result in the violation of a student’s due process rights. Under the Student Code of Conduct, behavior that involves a “real or perceived power imbalance” or “purposefully excluding someone from a group” can be considered bullying and come at a consequences to the accused. Loose, arbitrary bullying standards like “perceived imbalance” could lead to a misuse of the Student Code of Conduct. Under the University’s “UMatter at UMass” policy, students can be punished even “when offenders are unaware that they have shown bias and do not mean to offend.” Similar to the other standards, this rule could be broadly interpreted and has the potential to affect students negatively. At the University of Chicago, they believe that “it is not the proper role of the University to attempt to shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive.”
We should be seriously concerned that our administration’s policies are ambiguous and problematic enough to earn the University such poor marks. The UMass administration should follow the lead of the University of Chicago, who center themselves around the idea that while there are narrow exceptions to free speech, universities must be firmly committed to fostering “a completely free and open discussion of ideas.” UMass students’ rights will not be ensured until administrators get a lesson in remedial civics.
Brad Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected] or found on Twitter @Brad_Polumbo.