Speaking about the unspoken: campus community reflects on Lehigh’s free speech policies

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Designed by Kelly McCoy

Designed by Kelly McCoy

Maintaining individual rights to speech and expression is crucial for allowing free and open discussion on college campuses, yet many students are unaware of what their schools permit and prohibit.

Lehigh was given a “red light” speech code rating by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in October 2015. According to the FIRE website, a red speech code rating indicates the institution has at least one policy that substantially restricts students’ freedom of speech.

Lehigh’s Use of Computer Systems and Facilities Policy through Library and Technology Services, as well as a section of the harassment policy, are both deemed red light policies.

Lehigh’s harassment policy defines a hostile work, learning, co-curricular, social or living environment as a place in which, “a member of the Lehigh University community or a guest is subjected to unwelcome statements, jokes, gestures, pictures, touching, or other conducts that offend, demean, harass or intimidate.”

FIRE has also given a “yellow light” rating to several of Lehigh’s other policies, including the social policy, expectations of conduct, and the diversity and inclusion section of the Principles of Our Equitable Community. According to the FIRE website, the yellow light rating indicates the institution’s policy “restricts a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of (vague wording), could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” 

Despite these negative ratings for some of Lehigh’s policies, multiple people on campus don’t feel that it’s a problem.

“I understand the background for having the (policy of harassment), and I believe it’s very important,” said Haiyan Jia, an assistant professor of journalism and communication. “But at the same time, especially in academic situations, you want to have protection of freedom of speech and expression so that students and professors can have a safe place to express their thoughts and ideas.”

Jia, who started teaching at Lehigh this fall, previously taught classes at Penn State, which also received a red light speech code rating by FIRE. Penn State’s harassment policy (clearly) limits a student’s right to free speech.

Though Penn State has received a red rating, Jia believes the institution has come a long way from years past when there were “free speech zones” and the right to express oneself was limited. Though Jia has only been at Lehigh for a short time, she believes the administration is actively creating a free speech environment for students and professors alike.  

“As an educator I would feel nervous, for myself and my students, if I were to work at an institution that does not have policies protecting freedom of speech,” she said.

Compared to other private universities in Pennsylvania, Lehigh is more lenient. Jia reviewed Pennsylvania universities’ FIRE ratings and said she was alarmed by what she found.

Jack Lule, the professor and chair of journalism and communication, said Lehigh’s policies are comparable to those of public universities, which are legally bound by the First Amendment. As a private university, Lehigh is not required to follow the First Amendment. 

“I’ve been at Lehigh for 25 years and really have not seen any limitations on free speech,” Lule said. “That’s to Lehigh’s credit. We’re a private university, not a public university, so we aren’t held to the same laws a public university might be. But, for as long as I have been here, Lehigh has held itself to the same standards.”

Throughout Lule’s time here, he said he has seen and heard robust discussion about a wide variety of issues, including the status of minority students on campus, he said.

Openly talking about prominent societal and cultural issues has proven to be a longstanding tradition at Lehigh.

Tanairy Ortiz, ‘19, leads discussions in the Office of Multicultural Affairs as well as the Women’s Center, and she said she hasn’t seen dialogue limited in any way.

“Before each discussion we tell participants to be mindful and respectful of others’ opinions,” Ortiz said. “I would never consider that (to be) limiting free speech. It’s really just the right thing to do.”

Dana Gallant, a graduate assistant at the Office of Gender Violence Education and Support and the Break the Silence adviser, said she recognizes the significance of being considerate in conversation.

“I don’t think freedom of speech is freedom of consequence,” Gallant said.

Gallant believes “Popcorn and Porn: A Critical Analysis of the Role of Pornography Plays in Sexuality Education and Gender Violence” was a significant event on campus that shed light on something that was previously left unspoken about.

“It’s important for students to have the right to hold this kind of event because they identified (pornography) as an issue on campus,” Gallant said, “because people are watching porn and getting messages from it that may or may not be healthy. Just because something is controversial doesn’t mean that there is no value in talking about it.”

Gallant said she is not extremely familiar with Lehigh’s free speech policies, but based on her perception, it has not had a negative impact on students.

“The fact that I don’t know too much about the free speech policies means that it hasn’t been an issue in my life and work here,” Gallant said. “I think that freedom of speech is important, but so is promoting an equitable community.”

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1 Comment

  1. The U.S. Department of Education has evaluated a complaint regarding Lehigh’s IT policy. In the fall of 2015 an engineering student detected a breech and reported it. The student filed an objection of normal server operations. He did the right thing. Rather than being commended for his excellence in skill and character, he was immediately blocked from all IT on campus. He was charged by the Office of Student Conduct and found in violation of : 1) Respect for Community I1D (computer usage policy) and 2) Respect for Community. The student was found responsible for violation of the Lehigh University Computer Policy and was sanctioned to a semester suspension. He lost his education and his Lehigh gifted funding. The charges were adjudicated by Dean Mulvihill and the disciplinary conference report states that the student was charged after reporting IT vulnerabilities. Investigators at the Department of Education cite that this is “odd that a university would suspend someone for filing an objection”.*

    Thank you Brown and White for shining a light on Lehighs IT policy.

    *source: U.S Department of Education email in evidence case file.

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