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Foundation calls out USU for free speech restrictions

Published: Friday, January 27, 2012

Updated: Friday, January 27, 2012 11:01


Of the diverse faculty university administrators laud, one USU faculty member has worked as a war correspondent for The Salt Lake Tribune, broken a story on "mingy" in Ethiopia, which ran on CNN, and written about people from all over the world before becoming a professor at USU.

For assistant journalism professor Matthew LaPlante, freedom of speech isn't just a privilege, it's a job requirement.

"The First Amendment provides the legal framework for doing what we do," LaPlante said. "And it's not just for me as a journalist, it's for me as a teacher as well. The First Amendment provides for me to say unpopular things in class without fear from retribution from our government."

According to a study by The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) called "The Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011," USU was rated lowest in regard to students' free speech protections.

According to the FIRE mission statement, its goal is to "to defend and sustain individual rights at America's colleges and universities." These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty and sanctity of conscience.

The study's aim, according to the foundation, is to educate students about their rights and empower them to take action against institutions if necessary to protect these rights.

Universities are ranked three ways — green, yellow and red — based on the level of their restrictions on free speech.

Since FIRE created the survey in 2005, there has been a decline of universities represented in the "red light" category of free speech, according to the foundation. USU, however, was not represented in this decline and is still one of the universities given poor marks for the protection provided to students' First Amendment rights.

While the survey did examine some private universities, it focused primarily on public universities, because, according to FIRE, "public universities are legally bound to protect students' right to free speech."

Samantha Harris, a FIRE lawyer and Princeton University alumna, is the author of the Spotlight on Speech Codes survey.  

"As a red-light university, Utah State has already gotten a letter from FIRE ... just making them aware, particularly as a public university, of their obligation under the First Amendment," Harris said.

One example of USU's violation of First Amendment rights, according to the study, is found in the "USU Residence Life" handbook in the portion that states students may not display alcohol-related, "neon advertising materials." This could be considered a small matter, but Harris said it is a "violation to free speech."

The FIRE website outlines several instances in which the USU handbook specifically interferes with students' rights. One example cited states: "All interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency and a concern for personal dignity."

"Civility codes have been held unconstitutional by federal courts ... they're obviously very admirable goals, and they are  things a university should certainly encourage students to do, but there is a difference between encouraging and mandating," Harris said.

Harris said there are often issues in which students become passionate, and people may rally.

"Those interactions may not always be civil or courteous," Harris said. "I think that's an important point for universities to understand. Universities are absolutely free to encourage — as much as they want — students to uphold certain values and to interact with others certain ways. The problem is when they cross that line into requiring it, and you can be punished if you are not civil or courteous."

USU students are not alone. Of the 390 universities reviewed, 261 were placed in red-light categories. However, USU's lack of protection is not the result of a statewide push. University of Utah, 120 miles south of Logan, was one of 12 public universities ranked with a green-light rating.

"Knowing that we are in the red, I, as student advocate, would love to see us in the green," said Jason Russel, ASUSU student advocate.

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