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University of Colorado-Denver ditches ban on email that ‘might’ offend ‘ordinary’ people

UPDATED

Must also delete offensive email you receive – immediately

College administrator to lawyer: Draft a policy that I can use against any student or instructor who annoys me.

(20 minutes later)

Lawyer to administrator: You’re gonna love this.

Even by the standards of college speech codes, the University of Colorado-Denver has a mind-numbingly stupid and blatantly unconstitutional policy on email you’re allowed to send through the campus IT system.

The taxpayer-funded university is featured as the Speech Code of the Month by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. It earned a “red light,” the worst rating, in FIRE’s speech code database solely because of the email policy.

Here’s the first section under “Restrictions”:

Do NOT use email:
a. To create, send, forward or store emails with messages or attachments that might be illegal or considered offensive by an ordinary member of the public. (e.g., sexually explicit, racist, defamatory, abusive, obscene, derogatory, discriminatory, threatening, harassing or otherwise offensive).

Here’s another stunningly overbroad prohibition:

e. To send any disruptive, offensive, unethical, illegal or otherwise inappropriate matter, including offensive comments about race, gender, color, disability, age, sexual orientation, pornography, terrorism, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs or national origin, hyperlinks or other references to indecent or patently offensive websites and similar materials, jokes, chain letters and hoaxes, charity requests, viruses or malicious software.

f. For any other illegal, unethical, or unauthorized purpose.

The email policy even orders students not to “store” supposedly offensive messages, meaning “they’re even on the hook for failing to immediately delete someone else’s offensive email,” Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform at FIRE, notes in a blog post.

The “indecent” ban is also completely subjective, she continues: “Under CU Denver’s policy, emailing a link to Cardi B’s WAP video or even a photo of Michelangelo’s David would be punishable.” This is in contrast to “obscenity,” which has a strict legal definition.

Beltz invites CU-Denver to join the cool kids in the university system at CU-Boulder, which updated several speech codes (including its IT policy) this summer to earn FIRE’s highest “green light” rating.

The university took up FIRE on its offer after the negative attention and removed the broad subjective language from the email policy. It now reads, in its entirety:

Do NOT use email:

To create, send, forward or store emails with messages or attachments that are illegal or violate any other campus or University policy.

FIRE announced the policy revision Thursday and said CU-Denver revised it “this week.” The revision date on the policy, however, is Dec. 11 – last week. (The old policy was still on CU-Denver’s website when this column was first published Dec. 15, but it has now been removed.)

A FIRE spokesperson told The College Fix in an email Friday that the university contacted FIRE Dec. 10 “to say they’d be revising it, and had a meeting with us on the 14th to go over the changes.”

The university provided a statement, published by FIRE, that said the old policy was “primarily geared toward faculty and staff use” and that the administration “strongly support[s]and encourage[s] students, faculty and staff to express their views, debate issues, get involved and make change.”

It’s also reviewing policy language at other CU campuses.

As a result of the policy revision, FIRE upgraded CU-Denver to a “yellow light” school. It still has five “ambiguous” policies that can be applied arbitrarily or abused by administrators “too easily,” including bans on posters that “demean” a person or group and “abusive” behavior, undefined, toward other residents.

UPDATED: CU-Denver has revised the email policy to remove its broad and subjective language, and FIRE has upgraded the school to a higher speech-code rating as a result. FIRE later clarified the timing of the policy change to The Fix. The headline and body have been changed to reflect this.

MORE: Fordham bans emails that ‘insult’ or ’embarrass’ people

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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.