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Red Alert! VSU free speech in danger

VSU has earned a “red light” rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, the worst rating we have ever received. Here’s what it means for the university community. 

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE, is a national organization dedicated to the preservation of free speech. They have helped college campuses in particular since their inception in 1999, though they began to branch out in 2022. 

According to FIRE’s speech code ratings, a “red light” rating for a university is defined as “at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts the freedom of speech of students.” In this case, the main concerns were regarding VSU’s Information Resources Acceptable Use Policy.  

“It prohibits using the internet to post ‘sexually-explicit material, hate-based material, hacker-related material, or other material that may be deemed detrimental to the integrity, image, and mission of the University.’” 

Laura Beltz, FIRE’s Director of Policy Reform, goes into further detail on why this is a problem. 

“A public university can’t limit speech merely because it is deemed sexually explicit, hateful, or detrimental to the image of the university. That ban includes a great deal of protected speech, such as a tweet criticizing a university policy or a controversial political stance shared with a student group over email,” said Beltz. 

Beltz concluded this part of the policy critique with a recommended action for VSU to take. 

“The policy should be revised to instead ban speech and conduct that is not protected by the First Amendment, such as harassment, legally obscene material, defamation, or conduct that is substantially and materially disruptive to others’ use of information technology resources.” 

This was not all; FIRE noticed a few concerning points related to political speech in particular. 

“The policy bans using information resources to participate in any partisan political activity,” said Beltz. “However, while colleges that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code are prohibited from participating in political campaigns as institutions, this prohibition does not prevent students themselves from engaging in political speech where such speech is clearly separate and distinct from the institution as a whole.” 

Once again, Beltz provided a solution that FIRE deemed suitable for the situation. 

“This policy should be revised to ban only political activity that suggests that the university itself is participating in campaign or political activity or fundraising, or influencing legislation.” 

This is not the first time VSU has gone into the red with FIRE; former President Ronald Zaccari expelled then-student Thomas Hayden Barnes for protesting the construction of parking garages at VSU. FIRE helped to settle this case with a $900,000 settlement. 

There was also a concern that was handled in 2009, where students were only able to exercise free speech in the confined stage near Palms Dining Hall, and the school policy restricting such an isolated example of first amendment rights was rescinded. FIRE did find issue with the availability of such information. 

The current version of the Student Code of Conduct does not include the explanation about spontaneous protest being permitted in other open outdoor areas of the campus, instead suggesting that students may only use the Quadrangle, available from 8:00 am – 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday.” Beltz said. 

The Spectator reached out to Justin Arrington, VSU’s chief legal affairs officer, to answer a few questions regarding the matter: 

  • What was the initial intent of the Information Resources Acceptable Use Policy? 
  • What is the response to the concerns raised by FIRE for the university community’s freedom of speech? 
  • How will the Student Code of Conduct be changed to better reflect the changes made? 
  • How will Valdosta State University move forward and better facilitate the freedom of speech for the university community as a whole? What precedents will this set for the future? 

He provided a general statement regarding these concerns, though he did not provide in-depth answers regarding VSU’s plans to resolve the issues. 

“Valdosta State University takes these matters very seriously, and over the years has adapted and changed its freedom of speech policy to be more effective for its students and community,” said Arrington. “Any policy put in place is meant to protect its student’s speech as well as start a civil conversation about different topics and what that would mean for this campus.” 

Arrington goes on to express an intention of reflection, though mentioned no elaboration on the steps the university plans to take in regards to these dialogues. 

“The institution is always self-evaluating its own policies in an effort to connect more with the students of this generation. This self-reflection is constant and has sparked several changes in our policies over the years, and FIRE can attest to those changes that have been made in just the last 5 years,” said Arrington.  

“The need to continue to work with our student base to provide a level of free exchange is evident, and the institution will continue to strive to meet that challenge. This means working with the student body and elevating dialogue that promotes civil conversations over time.” 

Written by Bailey Wilson, Campus Life Editor. Photo Courtesy of Unsplash.

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