Students at UWA better not send any “harsh” texts or emails.

Samantha Harris of The FIRE blog reports.

Speech Code of the Month: University of West Alabama

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for January 2014: the University of West Alabama (UWA).

The University of West Alabama has a new policy prohibiting “Cyberbullying and Cyber Harassment” (PDF) that subjects virtually every student and faculty member on campus to punishment. That is because the policy defines cyberbullying to include not only unlawful conduct and unprotected speech, but also “harsh text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.”

Go ahead and read that one again: “harsh text messages or emails. Given that a “harsh” text or email would include anything from criticizing a sloppily drafted report, to reprimanding a child, to expressing frustration at a spouse who forgot to take out the trash, I’m going to guess that most of us have sent a “harsh” text message or email in the very recent past. Heck, if I emailed this blog entry around, UWA administrators could interpret it as violating this policy.

As someone in the UWA administration should surely know, the First Amendment—which applies with full force at a public university like UWA—protects our right to speak in harsh and critical ways. As the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312, 322 (1988), “[I]n public debate our own citizens must tolerate insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide ‘adequate “breathing space” to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment’” (internal citations omitted). Indeed, “a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949).

By prohibiting speech in which everyone engages, UWA has all but guaranteed that this policy will be enforced in an arbitrary and unfair manner. There is simply no way that UWA can police every instance of “harsh” emailing or text messaging on its campus.