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Public University Gets Worst Possible Free Speech Rating For Social Media Policy

A public university in Alabama has earned the worst rating it could possibly receive by a free speech watchdog group for its social media and email policies, which include prohibiting “harsh text messages,” spreading “rumors,” and posting “embarrassing” pictures of other students.

As reported by The College Fix, the University of West Alabama’s Cyberbullying and Cyber Harassment Policy received a “red light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for its free speech-threatening anti-harassment policies.

The policy forbids any form of cyberbullying or cyber-harassment, defined vaguely as “conduct that disrupts the educational environment of the university,” including “harsh text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles”:

Cyberbullying or cyber harassment by any member of the University of West Alabama community (student, faculty, staff, etc.) toward another individual constitutes conduct that disrupts the educational environment of the University.

Examples of cyberbullying and cyber harassment include, but are not limited to, harsh text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.

“The University will not tolerate lewd, intimidating or other disorderly conduct by or toward members of its community,” the policy explains, then provides the following “examples of instances where social media can cause harm to the University or member of the UWA community or may violate policies”:

  • A UWA student establishes a Twitter account that encourages others to submit anonymous messages to an account that will be redistributed by the account holder.
  • A member of the University community establishes a fake account under the name of an official University department or organization and uses the name and trademark to post vicious comments on other content.
  • A member of the University faculty or staff uses his or her blog or social media account to berate or otherwise discuss engagement with or judgment of a student’s work or other information considered confidential or proprietary by FERPA or HIPPA.

The College Fix has attempted to get more details on the policy, particularly “whether any students had ever been sanctioned by the school for sending a harsh text message,” but so far hasn’t gotten any response.

FIRE awarded the university’s cyber-harassment policy its worst possible “red light” rating, given when “an institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” FIRE defines a “clear” restriction as “one that unambiguously infringes on what is or should be protected expression.”

“The University of West Alabama’s ‘Cyberbullying and Cyber Harassment Policy Statement’ earns FIRE’s worst ‘red light’ rating because it is a clear and substantial restriction on constitutionally protected expression,” FIRE’s Laura Beltz said in a statement reported by The College Fix.

“Online messages do not lose First Amendment protection simply because they’re subjectively viewed as harsh, embarrassing, or as an unverified rumor,” Beltz explained. “For example, a single tweet that criticizes the university administration would be punishable under this policy, but would typically be protected by the First Amendment.”

The university policy, said Beltz, should be revised to meet the Supreme Court’s strict standard for peer harassment in the educational setting, which “requires conduct to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that the individual is effectively denied equal access to the university’s resources and opportunities — far from a single harsh text or an embarrassing email.”

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