We have been discussing the expanding monitoring and sanctioning of teachers for their political commentary on social media. We have also discussed such actions taken against college, high school and grade school students. The Supreme Court is due to consider the issue in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a case involving high school students punished for off-campus activities. Now, the Board of Trustees at the University of Oregon have approved a vague policy that mandates the monitoring of the social media exchanges and other “conduct” of its students. For the “Ducks” of Oregon, it could be difficult to judge what language could be deemed disruptive to anyone on campus under the rule.
Here is the policy:
Student behavior which occurs off-campus in which the University can demonstrate a clear and distinct interest as an academic institution regardless of where the conduct occurs and a) which causes substantial disruption to the University community or any of its members, b) which involves academic work or any University records, documents, or identifications, or c) which seriously threatens the health or safety of any person.
Note this covers any off-campus conduct that causes a substantial disruption to any member of university community. The board insists that such broad “language has been consistently upheld in court.” It is not clear what it is referencing since cases like Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969) refer to disruptions on campus or in schools. Oregon is laying the groundwork for saying that you speech off campus can be sanctioned if it is claimed to disruptive anyone on campus.
In fairness to Oregon, the earlier deleted language was worse:
“Students whose off-campus behavior has a significant adverse impact on the University community, its members, and/or the pursuit of its mission and educational objectives. The University may also apply the Student Conduct Code to conduct that would have violated the Student Conduct Code if it occurred on University Premises and a) involved violence; or b) involved academic work or any University records, documents, or identifications.”
There is a change from “significant adverse impact” to “substantial disruption.” It also allowed for adverse action if the conduct impacted “mission and educational objectives.”
However, the new change allows for sweeping and ill-defined authority. It is a convoluted structure but under the new rule you can be punished for off-campus conduct if it is a substantial disruption to any member of the university that involves “academic work or any University records, documents, or identifications”
That would seem to encompass references to school “identifications” in the form of other students or associations. That ambiguity can be a chilling element in such a speech limitation. Indeed, if a student identifies herself as an Oregon student, is that sufficient “identification”? What does “involved” with an identification mean?
The new rule is ironic given the special recognition given by Oregon a few years ago to University of California (Santa Barbara) Professor Mireille Miller-Young who criminally assaulted pro-life advocates on campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara. At Oregon, she was honored as a featured speaker at the University of Oregon’s Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies. Part of its “black feminist speaker series,” Miller-Young was asked to discuss “her work on black feminism, labor and sex work.” The College of Arts and Sciences and the Department of English promised that the series would show “the radical potential of black feminism in the work that we do on campus and in our everyday lives.” Would actually assaulting people with opposing views constitute “substantial disruption” at Oregon?
I actually would still defend the right to Miller-Young to appear on campuses though I object her past conduct. It would be interesting to discuss her intolerance for opposing views though such events rarely allow or involve such debates. The concern is whether Oregon will combine an ambiguous speech code with biased enforcement.
There is continued and rising concern over the extension of school authority over the conduct and comments of students and faculty outside of school. I have defended on this blog the free speech of individuals on the far left and the far right. However, I am concerned about the disparate treatment of individuals based on the content of their speech. It seems universities are taking far more aggressive steps against those on the right who challenge core issues or groups in current debates ranging from racial justice to police abuse to gender identification. The use of poorly or vaguely crafted language can only fuel such biased enforcement and increase the chilling effect on speech.