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Fordham University bans emails that ‘insult’ or ’embarrass’ people

In other words, lots of email

What a surprise that a university that ordered a student group to change its name in order to be recognized – and got smacked down in court for it – also has terrible written policies related to speech.

New York’s Fordham University literally prohibits mean emails, which you’d think would be experiencing a boom right now as all campus activities migrate online during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education highlights the private Jesuit school’s information technology usage policy for FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month, and it’s a doozy. Listed under “Statement of Prohibited Uses”:

Using any IT resource or communication services, including email or other means, to intimidate, insult, embarrass and harass others; to interfere unreasonably with an individual’s work, research or educational performance; or to create a hostile or offensive working or learning environment.

You can’t send email that might “insult” or “embarrass” someone? What does that even mean? It’s a wonder that Fordham hasn’t put hordes of its own faculty in the brig. The prohibition would also appear to cover any technology controlled by the university for online classes, from videoconferencing to online class discussions.

FIRE’s Laura Beltz explains that Fordham is foreclosing “a great deal of protected speech” with its amorphous ban on anything that sounds mean to someone: “It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a Fordham student could claim that they were insulted or embarrassed by something that was emailed to them by another student or posted on the school’s online learning management system.”

The IT policy is why Fordham earns FIRE’s worst speech-code rating, a “red light,” meaning it has “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” The university has several more that earn a “yellow light” rating, meaning they are so ambiguous or vague that they can be used to stifle speech.

“Right now, colleges and universities are faced with a host of difficult logistical issues in switching to online instruction,” Beltz says. “But we cannot allow these circumstances to excuse infringements on free expression.”

FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said last month that the civil liberties group is handling “a growing number” of cases involving online speech, from email listservs to online learning platforms.

“As the use of these systems increases during this time, we expect that number to rise even more,” he said, noting FIRE plans to release a report on universities’ online censorship via Facebook and Twitter.

MORE: Judge rebukes Fordham for viewpoint discrimination against student group

IMAGE: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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