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Originally published: 2012-02-03 09:34:57
Last modified: 2012-02-03 09:40:52

Rights group gives ASU ‘red light' rating

by Anna Oakes

An organization that defends individual rights at American colleges gives Appalachian State University a “red light rating” in an annual report released earlier this month. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed policies at 288 four-year public institutions and at 104 private institutions. Of the 392 schools reviewed, FIRE said nearly two-thirds received a red light rating — meaning the institution “has at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech.”

ASU receives a red light rating from FIRE because of its harassment policy, which FIRE suggests goes too far in delineating behaviors as harassment that could be protected forms of speech. The harassment policy bars such activities as “commenting inappropriately on someone's appearance,” “sexual innuendoes and comments” and “imposing religious beliefs on others,” in addition to threats and physical actions.

“The campus policy most commonly abused for the purposes of censorship is the harassment policy,” FIRE states on its website. “Too many racial, sexual and general harassment policies extend substantially beyond the limits of genuine harassment.”

FIRE said universities too often adopt strict workplace standards that should not apply in a campus setting.

“The standards of the workplace are hardly suitable for a university, which should tolerate a great deal more expression, however offensive, than an office,” according to FIRE.

Linda Foulsham, director of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Compliance said ASU must balance the right to free speech with the right to be free from unlawful sexual harassment.

“The courts have consistently held that the right to free speech may be limited where the speech substantially disrupts or interferes with the work of the university or the rights of other students,” she said, citing Snyder v. Millersville University, a 2007 U.S. District Court case.

“Each complaint must be evaluated individually by examining the totality of the circumstances surrounding the allegations and determining whether the speech unlawfully interferes with another student's right to full enjoyment of university programs and services,” she said.

Foulsham said ASU is updating its harassment and discrimination policies to incorporate recent changes in state and federal law but not in response to the red light rating, which she called “unwarranted.”

“FIRE has a narrow interpretation of an educational institution's responsibility to prevent and address sexual harassment on campus, which is supported by state and federal law” and the U.S. Department of Education, she added.

Katy Parker, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina, said ACLU-NC shares FIRE's concerns about ASU's harassment policy.

“I would say we would have concerns with that language. It just seems overbroad, and it could potentially chill protected free speech,” Parker said.

Parker said there are already laws on the books to prosecute perpetrators of harassment and agreed with the statement that university policies should not be as stringent as workplace standards.

“Any time you get into an issue of speech codes on campus, you're really running the risk of violating students' First Amendment rights,” she said. “What these rules threaten to do is to bring in a lot of speech that is protected.”

Read the Report