GW earns ‘yellow light’ for free speech

by Sarah Ferris

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gave GW a “yellow light” rating on its stoplight scale, meaning the free-speech advocacy group believes the University is potentially restrictive of individual rights.

The foundation pointed to the University’s disorderly conduct, demonstrations and residence hall flyer distribution policies as cause for the yellow light distinction. This is the second consecutive year GW earned that grade.

“Yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application,” according to their website.

GW defines disorderly conduct as “shouting or making excessive noise either inside or outside a building; verbally abusing University officials acting in performance of their duties; acting in a manner that annoys, disturbs, threatens or harasses others; disrupting, obstructing or interfering with the activities of others; or behaving in a lewd or indecent manner.”

Of the 375 public and private universities evaluated, 3 percent were rated “green” and 27 percent were given “yellow” grades. GW’s policies are less restrictive than 67 percent of other “red” higher education institutions, the report found.

All D.C.-area schools, besides GW and the University of Maryland, earned “red light” ratings.

FIRE’s director of speech code research, Samantha Harris, said the language of each offending policy matters. People do not have a right to be free from disturbances or annoyances, she said, as long as the behavior does not threaten or harass, which are not legally protected forms of speech.

GW’s Internet usage conduct code also received a “yellow light.” Harris said the policy, which says “University computing systems and services may not be used in an obscene, harassing or otherwise inappropriate manner,” gives the University full discretion over the definition of “inappropriate” and students have no way of knowing how to comply.

University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard pushed back against the ranking, saying GW supports individuals’ rights.

“GW is committed to the concept of individual rights of students and other members of the University population,” Sherrard said. “This commitment, however, must be balanced by the University’s need to provide meaningful protections for the GW community.”

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