One national group has rated two Georgia universities poorly when it comes to free speech.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) announced its annual rankings last week and both Georgia Southern University and Middle Georgia State University were among the two worst scoring universities. Both ranked poorly for their sexual harassment policies.
FIRE surveyed publicly available policies at 362 four-year public institutions and 104 of the nation’s most prestigious private institutions. Our research focuses in particular on public universities because, as explained in detail below, public universities are legally bound to protect students’ right to free speech and can be successfully sued in court when they do not.
FIRE rates colleges and universities as “red light,” “yellow light,” or “green light” institutions based on how much, if any, protected expression their written policies restrict.
FIRE gave GSU and MGSU ‘red light ratings,’ which means “one that has at least one policy both clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech, or that bars public access to its speech-related policies by requiring a university login and password for access.”
“Georgia Southern and Middle Georgia State’s policies provide definitions and examples that are far broader than (a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on campus sexual harassment guidelines),” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s senior program officer for policy reform.
“Georgia Southern says sexual harassment is any and all ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’ and that ‘[s]tudents should and employees must report any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature regardless of severity or the number of occurrences so that Georgia Southern can take steps to address harassment before it creates a hostile environment.’ Middle Georgia State says examples of harassing conduct include ‘negative stereotyping’ and ‘graphic material that denigrates,’ and that ‘sexually suggestive’ materials and ‘off-color jokes or language’ ‘is specifically prohibited,’ ” Beltz said. “Those examples certainly might be a part of a pattern of conduct that constitutes harassment, but they’re constitutionally protected when standing alone.”
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Georgia Southern officials say the policy “mirrors that of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.” Similarly, Middle Georgia officials told the AJC that “the policies FIRE used to base its rating on are no longer in effect and has asked the organization to update that information on its website.”
Emory received a top-ranking ‘green light’ while the University of Georgia, Georgia State, Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech all received a yellow light rating, which means the school’s policies “prohibit or have an impermissible chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.”