The University of Oregon Board of Trustees recently changed the language in its student conduct code, allowing it to punish off-campus student activity it deems caused “substantial disruption to the university community.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit that focuses on students’ free speech, called the new language “disturbing” in an article on May 26, stating it could infringe on UO students’ First Amendment rights. Previously, UO could only apply the conduct code to university-sponsored activities, but the new language allows them to apply it to students at any time.
FIRE program officer Alex Morey told the Emerald that students deserve to have, “some semblance of a private life,” when they enroll at a university. “Does that mean that the University of Oregon owns you every moment of the day?”
Morey said that the term “substantial disruption” is too vague and can be easily abused. She said that administrators say they won’t apply it broadly, and they would look at the facts of the incident before punishing a student, but FIRE often sees that is not true.
Morey cited a recent incident at Stanford, where a student made fun of the university’s Federalist Society by sending a satirical email flier from the society advertising an event called “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection.” He was subsequently investigated and his graduation was jeopardized. However, Stanford later realized that he was protected under the First Amendment and the investigation was canceled.
“Students frequently do not get the kind of due process that we would like to see when they're accused of saying something or doing something off campus,” she said. “That's just the reality, and that's why we were concerned about this policy change.”
Morey also said that this language is meant to be applied to K-12 students and she is concerned that it is “creeping” into colleges, as it would hurt college adults’ rights to free speech in their free time.
In an email to the Emerald, UO spokesperson Saul Hubbard wrote that, “the university has not substantively changed its practice in responding to off-campus behavior,” as it had already established off-campus jurisdiction in 2014.
UO made changes to its conduct code in 2014 to align with Title IX requirements and university policy. Hubbard wrote that the updated language was meant to clarify the original language.
Title IX was originally implemented to prevent gender discrimination in sports but has since expanded to cover all issues regarding gender discrimination and sexual assault. However, Morey said the new language in the code of conduct could lead to infringing on student rights.
“Their obligations are to ensure broadly against gender discrimination and gender violence,” said Morey. “This particular policy goes beyond that, and could be abused to impact things like students’ free speech rights and their due process rights, potentially.”
FIRE has a model code of conduct that highlights what it believes are appropriate instances for punishment by a university. It states that the code should apply to all conduct that happens on campus. The only time it should apply off-campus is when conduct, “occurs in a context in which the College exercises substantial control over both the location and the Respondent; or Triggers the College’s responsibilities under federal, state, or local law.”
Morey said that UO’s new language would “go too far” as it allows it to police student speech that might not trigger any of the university’s obligations under law.
Morey is concerned that there could be a trend where other schools follow UO’s language and change their own conduct code. She said there is the possibility that they would do this, knowing they could punish students for saying something they don’t like.
“Things that you do off-campus can also come back to campus at light speed,” said Morey. “It creates a really tough situation when it comes to student rights because it means students always have to be on and aware and subject to the campus codes and handbooks at all times.”