Expressing a controversial opinion is not a punishable ‘bias incident’
A common criticism of the news media is we highlight a lot of bad things, giving people the impression that good things rarely happen. So let’s highlight something hopeful this Friday.
Emory University, which threatened students’ political expression during the rise of presidential candidate Donald Trump, did some long-delayed housecleaning in its conduct codes.
It has earned a coveted “green light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, meaning its policies “nominally protect free speech.” It’s the 37th school to earn a green light.
According to FIRE, the private university in Atlanta revised its undergraduate code, bias incident reporting and information technology use policies.
Emory now only bans the transmission of “harassing or obscene material to another person” and conduct “likely to cause foreseeable physical injury, or intentional or reckless conduct of an outrageous or extreme nature that causes severe emotional distress.”
It specifies that “some, but not all, bias incidents may rise to the level” of behavior prohibited by campus policy or law, including discriminatory harassment and sexual misconduct, and thus fair game for disciplinary and legal proceedings:
It is important to note that expressions of opinion on social or political issues (even on controversial questions of race, gender, identity, etc.) are protected under the university’s Open Expression Policy, and therefore cannot be the subject of disciplinary sanctions.
Ensuring that Emory will not tell students they can’t engage in political speech using the campus network, as Georgetown Law inexplicably did during the 2016 election season, its revised IT policy ratchets back what is prohibited on its network:
Harassing other members of the Emory community … Viewing or distributing content, to the extent that doing do violates any applicable Emory policy and/or state and/or federal law, regulation, or policy.
Emory Law Prof. Sasha Volokh, chair of its Open Expression Committee, said in FIRE’s statement that the pre-revised policies simply had “mistaken or outdated language” that clashed with Emory’s five-year-old policy on open expression. He credited administrators including President Claire Sterk for going along with revisions.
In a separate blog post, Volokh said the committee has issued a “series of formal opinions” applying the open-expression policy since its revision.
He cited its finding that Emory had no right to investigate students who chalked pro-Donald Trump messages on campus last year, after then-President James Wagner said the school would review surveillance footage and discipline the chalkers.
Wagner also mused whether the chalking expressed a “harsher message” than simply a political preference, though following national ridicule, he chalked his own message: “EMORY STANDS FOR FREE EXPRESSION!” (Volokh’s post never mentions Wagner, who announced months before the controversy he was stepping down.)