February 7, 2019
A university policy banning “suggestive” notes could make Valentine’s Day dangerous for some Louisiana students.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warned in a recent news release that Students at the University of New Orleans may find themselves in the crosshairs of sexual harassment investigations if they aren’t careful about the content of Valentine’s Day cards they distribute.
UNO’s “Prohibiting Discrimination, Harassment, and Retaliation” policyclassifies “sending suggestive or obscene letters, notes or invitations” as an example of “sexual harassment” but, as FIRE notes, does not say that students doing so can only be punished when their behavior meets the Supreme Court-established legal standard.
While suggestive notes could make up a portion of harassment, “students reading this policy’s list of examples may think suggestive notes are punishable on their own, across the board, and may self-censor or think twice before sending a valentine,” according to a FIRE press release.
These concerns are not far removed from reality. In 2018, a student at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College dubbed a young woman named Polly Olsen as a “disruptive student” for distributing Valentine’s Day cards reading “Jesus Loves you .” Olsen sued the school for the enforcement of its “unconstitutional” speech code, which restricted “disruptive” expression such as hers to a small “free speech zone,” constituting less than one percent of the campus.
“It’s hard to see where the line would be drawn,” Speech First President Nicole Neily told Campus Reform, adding that the policy had the potential to “be enforced in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner by administrators who exercise a significant amount of discretion.”
“Vaguely worded, overly broad terminology like this have what’s called a chilling effect – and the First Amendment prohibits state officials at public universities from adopting regulations that outlaw certain student conduct when the regulation ‘is so broad as to chill the exercise of free speech and expression,’” Neily added.
According to Speech First, speech policies such as UNO’s ensure that “students must be certain before speaking that their words will not be perceived as suggestive by event the most sensitive student on campus – and must tailor their language accordingly,” and consequentially, “students are likely to refrain from sending ‘suggestive’ messages – even if intended to be humorous, a parody, or satire – because it will open them up to the risk of punishment.”
“Harassment isn’t protected by the First Amendment, but this policy is written so broadly that it includes protected speech,” FIRE senior program officer Laura Beltz said. “If students are left wondering if sending a valentine will land them in trouble, the university is not living up to its legal obligation to protect students’ free speech rights.”
Campus Reform reached out to UNO for comment but did not receive a response in time for publication.
This article was posted: Thursday, February 7, 2019 at 6:24 am