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Davis, California

Saturday, October 16, 2021

UC Davis speech restrictions receive “yellow light”

A recent report by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education surveyed 390 colleges and universities and found that 67 percent of these schools maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students’ free speech rights. This is down from 71 percent in 2010.

“FIRE has seen an increasing number of colleges want to reform their policies to better protect student speech,” said Samantha Harris, the author of the report and director of speech code research for FIRE. “One thing worth noting is that many students are becoming more aware of their rights and challenging their administrations to protect those rights; this can be a very effective mechanism for change on campus.”

FIRE rates colleges and universities as “red light,” “yellow light” or “green light” based on how much constitutionally-protected speech their written policies restrict.

FIRE gave UC Davis a yellow light rating, which means that Davis has policies that infringe to some extent on protected speech.

Davis was a red light at the time the report came out, but has since updated its policies. A student housing policy prohibiting any “offensive” e-mail messages and another policy prohibiting any “acts of intolerance” have been eliminated. These changes were not in response to the report.

A red-light institution is one that has at least one policy that limits freedom of speech.

A yellow-light institution maintains policies that could be interpreted to suppress protected speech or policies that restrict only narrow categories of speech.

If a university’s policies do not seriously threaten campus expression, that college or university receives a green light.

Harris said the results of the study are mixed.

UC Berkeley, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara all received a yellow light. UC Irvine, Riverside, San Diego and Santa Cruz received a red light.

According to FIRE, the first policy at Davis that concerns FIRE is the “Principles of Community,” which require students to acknowledge and practice ideological principles. FIRE said it violates students’ right to freedom of conscience by requiring students to share in those values. The First Amendment protects the right to hold one’s own beliefs free from governmental intrusion.

The other policy of concern to FIRE is a computing policy that prohibits “hate mail.” Harris said though actual harassment and threats are not protected speech, most speech that is “hateful” is still protected by the First Amendment.

“There have been some very positive developments for free speech, but there is also still room for improvement,” Harris said.

Donald Dudley, interim director for Student Judicial Affairs, said direct threats are one example of when Davis limits free speech.

Allan Brownstein, a professor of Constitutional law and free speech at UC Davis, explained that though policies like the Principles of Community are on the books, violations are not punishable.

“A public university cannot require students to hold particular beliefs,” Brownstein said. “But it is my understanding that the Principles of Community are an aspirational statement of university values. It is not an enforceable code of conduct. There is nothing wrong with a public university using its own voice to explain the importance of tolerance to an academic community.”

Griselda Castro, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs, agreed with Brownstein and said it is important to note that the Principles of Community are not campus policy; they are guidelines on the values to commit to as a campus community. 

 ANGELA SWARTZ can be reached city@theaggie.org.

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