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Posted at 5:00 AM ET, 12/29/2010

University of Virginia reforms speech code

By Valerie Strauss

The University of Virginia has eliminated four controversial policies that restricted the free speech of students and faculty, becoming one of a minority of schools across the country to do so.

The recent decision to change the policies was led by Allen W. Groves, dean of students, who said he was alerted to the questionable policies last spring by Adam Kissel, vice president of an organization called Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, which aims to protect free speech on college campuses.

The changes made at UVa:

*Groves reformed the school’s "Just Report It!" "bias reporting" system to promise students that protected speech will not be "subject to university disciplinary action or formal investigation" even if it is reported.

*Shirley Payne, assistant vice president for information security, policy and records, removed unconstitutional language from a policy prohibiting Internet messages that "vilify" others and mailing list messages that are "inappropriate."

*The school’s Women’s Center removed two policies with unconstitutional examples of "sexual harassment" from its website.

The examples stated that "jokes of a sexual nature," "teasing," and even mere "innuendo" constituted sexual harassment.

The policies had further suggested that simple flirting could be sexual harassment if it was not "wanted and mutual," and that if a person felt "disrespected," their experience "could indicate sexual harassment."

Groves said protecting free speech at the university matters a great deal.

“We are pretty affectionate about Thomas Jefferson here,” he said, referring to UVa’s founder. “If any place ought to be protective of free speech and open discoure, it's the University of Virginia.”

He said that while colleges and universities want to protect their students from “unpleasant and ugly situations,” they face the challenge of drawing a line between things that might be unpleasant but are protected speech, and things that are harassing and threatening that can be disciplined.

“The effort to protect against harassment sometimes goes too far,” he said.

More than two-thirds of the nation’s colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech, according to FIRE.

According to FIRE's report, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2011: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation's Campuses, 67 percent of the 390 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon students' free speech rights. That was a drop from 71 percent a year ago, but FIRE said it is concerned that a surge in restrictions may occur.

UVa now joins another public Virginia institution, The College of William & Mary, in a group of 13 schools recognized by FIRE as “green light” colleges and universities that have the best free-speech policies.

In Virginia, Kissel said his group is interested in persuading three more Virginia public universities -- George Mason, James Madison and Virginia Tech -- to change their free-speech policies.


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By Valerie Strauss  | December 29, 2010; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Life, Higher Education  | Tags:  FIRE, free speech, free speech on campus, speech codes, university of virginia  
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I don't really trust this particular organization's motives. Unlike the ACLU, which will defend attacks to civil liberties from the right or from the left, this group seems to only want to defend homophobic, misogynistic or racist speech. As a journalist, I'd hope you'd check out their funding sources before giving them any additional legitimacy by publicizing their efforts.

Posted by: buckbuck11 | December 29, 2010 8:27 AM | Report abuse

FIRE is a proudly nonpartisan organization that, contrary to the above poster's suggestion, regularly defends the speech of those on the left, those on the right, and a whole lot of speech that is not political at all. Our staff come from across the political spectrum, united only by our commitment to individual liberties. In recent months alone, we have pressured Northern Illinois University to recognize a student group dedicated to opposing the War on Drugs ( We have criticized DePaul University for discriminating against a student group that advocates marijuana policy reform ( We have helped an environmental activist take his university to court for expelling him for peacefully protesting the construction of new parking garages on campus ( And we have worked with students from across the political spectrum to eliminate unconstitutional restrictions on speech on campuses across the country, allowing students of all political and ideological stripes to speak their minds more freely.

Posted by: FIREStaff | December 29, 2010 11:52 AM | Report abuse

I am a FIRE case, and I know most of the FIRE staff on a casual basis. They come from all ends of the ideological spectrum, and are passionately dedicated to preserving free speech on college campuses on any issue.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 29, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Good for FIRE. End the Stalinist speech codes.

Posted by: jy151310 | December 31, 2010 8:49 AM | Report abuse

Congratulations to the students and faculty at UVA. This is a good start toward protecting the civil rights of students and faculty; there is still so, so much work to be done, but this is a good start.

Posted by: MikeJonze | December 31, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

FIRE is not a politically slanted organization in any respect, except that it is dedicated to the principles of the Enlightenment as those are represented in our Constitution.

It will be subject to such suspicion, however, because the vast majority of attempts to curtail speech come from the left.

Posted by: byron13 | December 31, 2010 9:29 AM | Report abuse

Huzzah! A great advance for gay rights! I always knew that straight boys love it when gay boys flirt with them. :-)

Posted by: t_parker16 | December 31, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

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