Last month, the California Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights issued a report on Equal Educational Opportunity and Free Speech on Public College and University Campuses in California. The focus of the report was whether harassment policies at these institutions intrude too much on student free speech. As we’ve written about before on these pages, overbroad and vague harassment policies are major contributors to the national speech code problem. Alliance Defending Freedom has represented students who challenged these policies in California (multiple times), Washington, Georgia, and Pennsylvania.
The Advisory Committee’s report is worth full examination, but here are the highlights. First, the Advisory Committee acknowledges the danger harassment policies pose to student speech:
There is a concern that an over-emphasis by public colleges and universities on preventing illegal harassment may be undermining the free speech rights of students guaranteed by the First Amendment. Diversity of opinion and equality of opportunity also are essential to productive and enriching higher education. Previously, equal access to higher education in this country was denied to many persons on the basis of economic condition, race, color, religion, or gender. In recent decades, it has become a generally-accepted tenet that society benefits from having a publicly-funded system of higher education that is accessible and open to persons from all backgrounds. Diversity of opinion and equality of opportunity now are viewed as essential conditions for the university to successfully pursue its mission of scholarship and education. The inclusion of a broad range of social, racial, ideological and economic backgrounds contributes to a multiplicity of experiences, outlooks and ideas, promoting a richer, more scholarly environment.
The report then cites Alliance Defending Freedom’s DeJohn v. Temple University case as an example of how harassment policies can run afoul of the First Amendment.
DeJohn v. Temple University, reinforced the Davis principles, explaining students’ First Amendment rights were more preeminent in the university context “where free speech is of critical importance because it is the lifeblood of academic freedom.” The Court specifically noted: “Because overbroad harassment policies can suppress or even chill core protected speech, and are susceptible to selective application amounting to content-based or viewpoint discrimination, the overbreadth doctrine may be invoked in student free speech cases.” It declared portions of the University’s harassment policy facially unconstitutional because speech could not be prohibited merely because it may be seen as “hostile” or “offensive” without the requirements of a showing of “any requirement
akin to a showing of severity or pervasiveness.”
The Davis case referred to above is a United States Supreme Court decision that said public educational institutions may be liable for student-on-student harassment that is severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive. DeJohn applied those principles to strike down Temple University’s harassment speech code because it allowed regulation of more than just severe, pervasive and objectively offensive speech. A year after the DeJohn decision, the University of California reformed its system-wide harassment policy to protect student speech.
In 2009, the Office of the General Counsel of UC conducted a review of the university’s student conduct harassment policies in the wake of recent court decisions. Previous definitions of university harassment policies were similar to ones struck down in a number of recent court cases, and it was recommended that the policies be modified. As a result, the revised definition of harassment for UC is modeled on the definition of unlawful student-on-student harassment set forth by the US Supreme Court in its Davis decision.
Finally, the Advisory Committee notes that even though the Davis and DeJohn cases have been on the books for years, California’s public college and universities persist in enforcing overbroad and vague harassment policies.
Although the Supreme Court issued its Davis ruling over 10 years ago explaining offensive speech or conduct only constitutes “harassment” which can be prohibited if it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit;” and that ruling has been applied to institutions of higher learning in DeJohn and other court rulings; California public colleges and universities continue either to enact speech restrictions contrary to Davis or enforce student codes of conduct in a manner inconsistent with Davis.
Does your college have an overbroad harassment policy? Let us know.