Concerned parents looking to send their kids to a college free from repressive speech codes can now add another option to their list. Last semester, the University of Virginia (UVA) eliminated the last of a series of policies that unconstitutionally restricted the free speech of students and faculty members. Two-thirds of the nation's colleges maintain policies that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech. But now, UVA is an exception to the rule having fully reformed four speech codes over the course of the last year.
President Teresa Sullivan should be commended for overseeing these important changes, which guarantee the First Amendment rights of students and faculty members at the University of Virginia. Within just three months of taking office, President Sullivan has overseen the transformation of UVA from a school that earned FIRE's worst “red light” rating for restricting protected speech to their highest “green light” rating. But there is another UVA administrator who deserves even higher praise than President Sullivan.
FIRE began working with UVA administrator Dean Allen Groves in April 2010 after Adam Kissel gave a lecture on free speech that was hosted by two UVA student groups - Students for Individual Liberty and Liberty Coalition. Shortly thereafter, Dean Groves received a letter from FIRE, which provided detailed objections to UVA’s then-existing speech codes. UVA student Virginia Robinson happened to be interning for FIRE in the summer of 2010. Thus, she was able to help UVA reform its speech codes.
First, Dean Groves reformed UVA's “Just Report it" so-called bias reporting system. He made sure students were aware that protected speech will not be "subject to University disciplinary action or formal investigation" even if it is reported.
Next, Assistant Vice President for Information Security, Policy, and Records Shirley Payne removed unconstitutional language from a policy prohibiting Internet messages that "vilify" others and mailing list messages that are "inappropriate." Removing such overly broad and vague language helped remove a possible chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.
Finally, with the help of Dean Groves, UVA's Women's Center confirmed that it had removed two policies with unconstitutional examples of "sexual harassment" from its website. Some examples stated that "jokes of a sexual nature," "teasing," and even mere "innuendo" constituted sexual harassment. The policies 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."