Thursday, December 18, 2008

Foundation For Individual Rights In Education (FIRE) Rates Three University Of Alaska Campuses As Hostile To Free Speech; UAF The Worst By Far

On December 15th, 2008, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released its 2009 report on campus speech codes, revealing that American colleges and universities systematically violate students' and faculty members' right to freedom of expression. Read their full press release HERE.

The report, entitled "Spotlight on Speech Codes 2009: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses", reports on policies at 364 American colleges and universities. FIRE found that approximately 74 percent of schools surveyed maintain policies that clearly restrict speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"Unfortunately, this year's report demonstrates that despite decades of precedent declaring speech codes unlawful and two decisions this year alone, the majority of colleges and universities brazenly maintain policies that violate students' and faculty members' fundamental rights," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Everyone who values the free exchange of ideas should be deeply disturbed by these findings."

FIRE's report is the most comprehensive effort to date both to quantify the proportion of colleges and universities that restrict free speech and to assess the severity of those restrictions. The research was conducted between September 2007 and September 2008. All of the policies cited in the report are available online in FIRE's searchable speech code database, "Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource".

Click HERE to select the state of interest. From there, you can select the campus of interest.

The menu for Alaska is HERE. FIRE rated the University of Alaska-Anchorage (UAA), the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF), and the University of Alaska-Southeast (UAS, located in Juneau), and found that all three are hostile to free speech. They classified all three as "red light" schools. The color codes are explained below.

RED LIGHT: A “red-light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. A “clear” restriction is one that unambiguously infringes on protected expression. In other words, the threat to free speech at a red-light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied. A “substantial” restriction on free speech is one that is broadly applicable to important categories of campus expression. For example, a ban on “offensive speech” would be a clear violation (in that it is unambiguous) as well as a substantial violation (in that it covers a great deal of what would be protected expression in the larger society). Such a policy would earn a university a red light.

YELLOW LIGHT: A “yellow-light” institution has policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that, while restricting freedom of speech, restrict only narrow categories of speech. For example, a policy banning “verbal abuse” would have broad applicability and would pose a substantial threat to free speech, but would not be a clear violation because “abuse” might refer to unprotected speech, such as threats of violence or genuine harassment. Similarly, while a policy banning “posters promoting alcohol consumption” clearly restricts speech, it is limited in scope. Yellow-light policies may be unconstitutional, and a rating of yellow rather than red in no way means that FIRE condones a university’s restrictions on speech. It simply means that those restrictions do not clearly and substantially restrict speech in the manner necessary to warrant a red light.

GREEN LIGHT: If FIRE finds no policies that seriously imperil speech, a college or university receives a “green light.” A green light does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression. It simply means that FIRE has not found any publicly available written policies violating students’ free speech rights on that campus.

(1). UAA: Information page on the school HERE. Red-lighted because of sexual harassment policies; constraints against inappropriate jokes and comments consider too ambiguous. Internet use policy bans transmission of hate, obscenity or porn; but constraints against hate may also be too ambiguous (who defines "hate"?). However, I'm not aware of any complaints against the school and it's possible FIRE's rating may be too severe; a yellow-light rating might be more representative. Conclusion: FIRE's rating should not deter anyone from considering enrollment at UAA. It's a good school with a promising future (good luck finding parking, though).

(2). UAF: Information page on the school HERE. Red-lighted for numerous issues. Their Protected Group Harassment Policies are utterly draconian. Particularly objectionable are their rules against "making inconsiderate and mean-spirited jokes" and "attributing objections to any of the [policies] to hypersensitivity of the targeted individual or group". The former is too ambiguous, and the latter effectively penalizes you for complaining about the policy. In addition, there is a track record of previous free speech complaints against the university, in particular the case of Professor Linda McCarriston. Her case file can be found HERE. Conclusion: FIRE's rating is not only accurate, it may be too optimistic. I cannot recommend enrollment at UAF at this time, at least not until they clean up their group harassment policies.

(3). UAS: Information page on the school HERE. Red-lighted primarily because their section on Advertised Commitments to Freedom of Speech is too schizophrenic. On the one hand, they claim to favor free and open discourse. On the other hand, they'll nag you if you offend them. No true academic can thrive in such an uncertain environment. Conclusion: Combined with Juneau's stratospheric cost of living, I cannot recommend enrollment at UAS at this time, although it's not as bad as UAF.

It's sad that only one of Alaska's three principal universities even pretends to honor free speech.

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