Campus Free Speech

Public University Threatens To Monitor and Punish Off-Campus Student Behavior

Doing the wrong thing at an off-campus party could lead to on-campus consequences.


In May, the University of Oregon's Board of Trustees approved a policy change to expand the school's jurisdiction to punish students for off-campus actions. This revision to the student conduct code redefines the scope of disciplinary authority over the private lives of students.

The amended policy now reads, "The University may apply the Student Conduct Code to 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." According to the student newspaper, possible consequences for off-campus code violations include suspension, disciplinary probation, or educational sanctions.

The decision follows unruly parties at private residences near campus earlier this month that drew ire from the surrounding community amid ongoing COVID-19 concerns. One event shut down by police went viral on social media after a crowd of over 500 partygoers were reportedly hostile to officers as they dispersed.

In a tweet, the university responded: "UO is limited in the actions it can take with individuals who live in private homes. However, the office of student conduct and community standards is investigating complaints involving this photo [of an off-campus party] and will take any necessary appropriate actions."

As such, the Board of Trustees met in the following weeks to "[clarify] the University's nexus," according to meeting notes. Though the policy change was never proposed to the university's senate, there was no opposition from the Student Conduct Advisory Committee. The meeting notes even go as far as to assert that "this language has been consistently upheld in court."

This, however, is plainly untrue. Presently, a similar case concerning a violation of student freedoms is being considered in the Supreme Court. In Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., a Pennsylvania high school cheerleader who was suspended for complaining she did not make the varsity squad in a profane Snapchat post is now suing the school district for violating her off-campus speech rights.

Though the Supreme Court's infamous 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines asserted that teachers and students do not "shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gates," the Mahanoy case and the University of Oregon policy call into question whether public schools wield additional authority to monitor and punish off-campus activity.

Such policies, expanded due to the pandemic, could have lasting implications in defining the delineation between campus life and private life. And as a public university, UO is held to a higher standard than private universities in its obligation to uphold the constitutional rights of its students.

Last week, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) asserted that the university "must disavow this unsound policy and implement a lawful one instead." UO's jurisdictional bloat sets an alarming precedent for student privacy and freedom.