Free speech org calls out vagueness of university's 'sexually suggestive' speech code

The organization is concerned about the vagueness of certain clauses, especially one pertaining to pictures and artwork.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has issued a “red light” warning to Morehead State University’s speech code.

A free-speech advocacy group highlighted Morehead State University in Kentucky as having a concerning policy around policing students’ speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) named Morehead as their first 2020 Speech Code of the Month, giving the school a “red light” rating in light of concerns about students’ free speech rights.

A “red light” rating from FIRE means that at least one school policy has been found to be “clearly and substantially” restrictive of free speech. To be qualified as such, FIRE says that a policy/decision must be unquestionably infringing upon protected speech. 

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In the case of Morehead, FIRE says that the university’s policy on sexual misconduct is prohibitive of full expression of free speech. 

The school’s policy defines sexual harassment as including “displaying sexually suggestive objects or pictures, cartoons or posters.” The policy also states that using “degrading words” or “making sexual gestures” are examples of sexual harassment.

In FIRE’s analysis,  the organization explains how Morehead has overstepped with this particular clause, writing, “When speech is a part of harassment, it isn’t constitutionally protected. But just because speech is sexual in nature, that doesn’t mean it constitutes harassment.”

FIRE makes the point that such a policy is vague and broad, which makes unfair application a likely outcome. Besides this, the organization finds that such a policy has a “chilling” effect on speech.

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Alternatively, FIRE states that this policy could be corrected. Instead of singling out suggestive posters, FIRE suggests that the policy could state that suggestive posters can be part of a pattern that translates into sexual harassment that can be “legally defined as punishable.” The organization confirms that this change to the current sexual harassment policy would be more constitutionally sound.

Campus Reform reached out to Morehead State University for comment, but the school did not respond in time for publication. 

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