GW’s free speech policies rank mid-level

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

FIRE specifically pointed to GW’s disorderly conduct policy, demonstrations policy and GW Housing Program’s flyer distribution policy, as the reasons for the “yellow light” distinction. According to the FIRE website, “yellow light colleges and universities are those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

In its annual “Spotlight on Speech Codes” report, FIRE had originally listed GW as a “red light” school due to the University’s disorderly conduct policy, but changed the listing online.

Disorderly conduct is defined by the University 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.”

The University’s policy was recently reworded for clarification, Student Association President Jason Lifton said. The old policy prohibited “acting in a manner. offensive to others,” while the new policy omits the word “offensive” and includes “harass” and “threaten.”

University spokeswoman Michelle Sherrard said the disorderly conduct policy was edited to “clarify the wording and emphasize the need for students to conduct themselves in a civil and respectful manner toward others.”

“It is not intended to restrict the ability of students to express their opinions, engage in debate or support causes using orderly means that do not disrupt University operations,” Sherrard said.

FIRE officials could not be reached for comment about the discrepancy in the two ratings, including whether the change in the policy’s wording had improved GW’s score.

Of the 375 public and private universities evaluated by FIRE, 71 percent were rated “red” and 24 percent were rated “yellow.” Despite its “yellow light,” GW’s policies rank as less restrictive than more than two-thirds of other higher education institutions.

GW was the only D.C.-area school that did not receive a “red light.” Georgetown, American, George Mason and the University of Maryland, College Park, all received “red lights.” Among the 11 schools that received “green light” ratings were Dartmouth College, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of South Dakota.

FIRE’s classification of GW does not have much legal basis, GW Law School Professor Daniel Solove said, because GW is a private institution and is not required to guarantee First Amendment rights.

“[A]s a private institution, GW would not be subject to First Amendment law, so the opinion would be based solely on policy considerations rather than legal ones,” Solove said.

GW received three “green lights” from FIRE, for its policy on sexual harassment, Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities and its policy on pamphlets, petitions and demonstrations. The “green light” demonstration distinction is given for advertised commitment to free expression, while its “yellow light” distinction for demonstrations falls under the free-speech zones category.

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