The First Amendment applies to public colleges and universities. But that hasn’t stopped one public college in my home state of Massachusetts, UMass Lowell, from instituting a policy that blatantly restricts the free speech rights of students and staff alike.
The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) highlighted UMass Lowell’s “acceptable use” policy for its monthly series spotlighting egregious free speech violations on campuses. This policy applies to all school-provided computers, but also any networks and/or services connected to the university, such as email or campus wifi. It prohibits the use of any such technologies to transmit or access “offensive material.”
This is deeply problematic and constitutionally suspect. After all, what, exactly, constitutes “offensive?”
For example, is a student who receives right-wing news sources in their email inbox violating it? It’s safe to say that many of the views commonly expressed in conservative media are considered “hate speech” by many woke campus administrators—but they’re also protected expression under the First Amendment.
“The Supreme Court has explicitly held, time and time again, that speech cannot be restricted by the government merely because it offends others,” FIRE points out. “In spite of such clear precedent, colleges and universities routinely ban offensive speech in campus speech codes, especially in IT policies. Whether a person is burning a flag at a protest or advocating for (or against) flag burning on Twitter, a ban on ‘offensive’ speech calls for impermissible viewpoint discrimination.”
FIRE also says this speech code is ripe for abuse and gives it their “red light” rating, reserved for the worst anti-speech policies.
“UMass Lowell couldn’t possibly take action every time someone views or retweets something subjectively offensive over university wifi — every single student, and probably every professor, would be on trial,” FIRE says. “But a policy like this makes it all too easy for the university to crack down on select, disfavored speech. Before UMass Lowell’s policy is applied in a similar way to restrict protected speech, the university should revise it to provide only viewpoint-neutral regulations on expression.”
As a public college in part funded by taxpayers, UMass Lowell has an obligation to get its policies in line with the Constitution. If it won’t, students should sue their asses and force them to stop violating their free speech rights.