OU Disproves Speech Infringement Claims
The statement came from Interim Vice President of Student Affairs Ryan Lombardi, who said the university has no such policy.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) published an article on its blog, The Torch, describing the story of OU freshman Jillyan Burns, whose residential coordinator made her take down a political poster criticizing both President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney.
Burn’s Residential Coordinator said it was university policy that students cannot display political posters in dorms until 14 days prior to the election. But in fact, the policy exists solely for the purposes of Student Senate elections, not general elections.
“A staff member simply misinterpreted the policy,” said Lombardi. “We do not have a policy of censorship along anything of those lines.”
“As soon as we were made aware of this we said, ‘oh my gosh, what happened?’ and we corrected that with the staff member,” said Lombardi.
After Burns elicited FIRE’s involvement, the organization took the issue to the administration, writing to President Roderick McDavis. Burn’s RC was contacted and asked to correct the issue. According to VP Lombardi, the RC has since apologized to Burns.
“Somehow this has turned into us trying to censor political activism, from which is the furthest thing we try to do at this campus,” said Lombardi. “I understand where they are coming from and why they would try to claim that victory to get some attention.”
“[Political posters] are all over the place in Athens and on campus, and we always support different student groups to host forums and other kinds of conversations,” said Lombardi of student activism.
“Though we’re happy that Ohio University quickly realized and corrected its error, we’re still concerned that universities are willing to obstruct their students’ political expression in the first place,” said Peter Bonilla, associate director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program in the article. “This latest incident shows that there is still great capacity for confusion when it comes to a student’s right to speak his or her mind on political matters.”
Though the university has corrected the mistake and disproved the claims, Burns said she believes FIRE’s article is still “appropriate.”
“Not just because of the poster policy that we’ve debunked by getting FIRE involved, but because of other policies,” said Burns, referring to FIRE’s red light rating of OU.
FIRE’s website rates both public and private U.S. universities on a red, yellow and green scale, where red universities are seen to infringe on freedom of speech and green universities have no infringements on speech.
“I think the purpose of the article, in my opinion, was just to get some attention toward public universities and their infringement on individual rights,” said Burns. The article, she said, was meant to “let there be some type of confidence in other students’ minds, and at other universities that have stricter speech policies than OU, that they can have backup like FIRE.”
OU is currently ranked as a red university because of several of its Student Code of Conduct policies, most notably its policies on sexual harassment and mental or bodily harm.
The policy on sexual harassment includes speech-related harassment, such as sexually explicit jokes or comments, which FIRE has determined violates a student’s individual rights.
In 2009, FIRE sent a letter to President Roderick McDavis to warn that if the policies are not changed, the university may be judicially charged. The university declined to change its policy and no such charges have been made.