The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has given Utah Valley University a red speech code rating. This means that the organization has found at least one policy at the university that “clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”
In UVU’s case, they’ve found two. These two policies sit among a half dozen others that raise questions about the rights of students attending UVU.
“The restriction has to be clear on the page of the policy as it’s written and it has to be substantial in the sense that the amount of protected speech prohibited by the policy is a substantial amount,” said Azhar Majeed, associate director of legal and public advocacy at FIRE. “With these policies, they’re clear on their page that they restrict protected speech and the amount restricted is substantial.”
The two policies that earned the red speech code ranking are both found in the school’s policy handbook and deal with sexual harassment. Majeed pointed out that the biggest problem with these policies was that the language was too vague and left too much open for interpretation. The policies never clearly defined what would constitute harassment on campus and used words like “unwelcome” or “unwanted,” which—legally speaking—are subjective terms.
Majeed explained that while he could understand what the school was trying to say in the policies, the language was far too flexible to adequately protect students and staff at the university.
“When you leave it that broad and that open-ended, it essentially leaves it open to interpretation, and— in any given case—in the hands of the wrong administrator or in the hands of the wrong student you can end up claiming sexual harassment against somebody for an innocuous kind of speech,” said Majeed.
In a statement issued by the university, the administration stood by the policies, wording, and processes in which they were arrived at.
“Policy making at UVU is a collaborative process that includes input from state legal counsel, and its policies are maintained in compliance with federal and state laws,” began the statement.
“UVU believes the policies in question are fair and provide students, employees, and the general public with a clear understanding of the policies of the university concerning those issues, without impeding anyone’s rights.”
Aside from the two “red light rankings,” Majeed pointed out that there were many other policies that had caught the attention and concern of FIRE.
These other policies, which had earned the less-severe grade of a “yellow light,” didn’t constitute a substantial intrusion on the rights of students, but could potentially cause problems. While many of the policies suffered from the same loose language that earned the other the red light, one of them concerned the students’ right to peaceful assemblies.
As it stands, any peaceful assembly at UVU needs to be planned through the offices of the Vice President for Student Services. The assemblies can only take place at predetermined locations, chosen from a list provided by the administration.
Majeed explained that, typical of yellow light policies, it was more of a minor concern since the policy is only a slight intrusion on students’ rights, but it could cause problems for students looking to utilize that freedom.
“You would think that at a public university, students peacefully assembling on campus to speak out, to demonstrate, to protest—what have you—would be not just protected but encouraged by the administration. I would think you want an active and caring student body when it comes to the issues of the day,” said Majeed.
All of the questionable policies at UVU are highlighted on FIRE’s website at thefire.org. They’ve also made information available to help educate students about their rights as well as general patterns and policies about free speech. Among their services, FIRE offers to review any cases where students have had their speech censored or punished.