The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Colorado University-Denver Revises Unconstitutionally Restrictive, Viewpoint-Based E-Mail Policy

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gets results.


From the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (Bill Rickards):

Each month, FIRE highlights one restrictive policy at a college or university as our "Speech Code of the Month." Because it's far from an award to be proud of, FIRE encourages institutions with these policies to amend them quickly. However, our words often go unheeded, exposing the university or college to costly legal battles and chilling student expression.

But not all institutions are content with leaving bad policies on their books. This month, FIRE's December Speech Code of the Month recipient, the University of Colorado Denver, lived up to its obligation under the First Amendment by quickly revising an email policy that restricted student and faculty speech.

FIRE first called attention to CU Denver's email policy earlier this month, noting that the policy directed students not to send any "offensive … or otherwise inappropriate matter" over email. Listed examples included "offensive comments" about topics like race, gender, political beliefs, and even terrorism.

This week, CU Denver reformed the policy in line with FIRE's recommendations, striking parts of it from the books. For comparison's sake, CU Denver's old policy stated:

Do NOT use email:

  1. To create, send, forward or store emails with messages or attachments that might be illegal or considered offensive by an ordinary member of the public. (e.g., sexually explicit, racist, defamatory, abusive, obscene, derogatory, discriminatory, threatening, harassing or otherwise offensive).
  2. To send any disruptive, offensive, unethical, illegal or otherwise inappropriate matter, including offensive comments about race, gender, color, disability, age, sexual orientation, pornography, terrorism, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs or national origin, hyperlinks or other references to indecent or patently offensive websites and similar materials, jokes, chain letters and hoaxes, charity requests, viruses or malicious software.

The unconstitutional language taken out, the policy now reads:

Do NOT use email:

  1. To create, send, forward or store emails with messages or attachments that are illegal or violate any other campus or University policy.

CU Denver, a recent addition to FIRE's Spotlight Database just this year, released a statement about the change:

Free speech is a vital part of CU Denver's mission. We strongly support and encourage students, faculty and staff to express their views, debate issues, get involved and make change. The policy was primarily geared toward faculty and staff use. We plan to update this policy and review the policy language created by our partner CU campuses.

… FIRE congratulates CU Denver on making a swift change to this policy. As always, we stand ready to assist universities in crafting policies that protect student rights. If you're concerned about a potential violation of your rights on campus or are an administrator interested in revising a policy, contact FIRE for more information.

Nice. My guess is that the old policy wasn't really thought through, but just borrowed from some sample policy (such as this one). It's good that, once the CU people focused on it, they realized that they hadn't paid enough attention to academic freedom and free speech, and promptly fixed things. (Note also that the revised policy protects faculty and staff speech as well as student speech.)