Opinion

Grambling under FIRE for speech restrictions

Grambling State University is in a dispute over its prohibition of “disruptive or offensive” emails, which includes bans on all “joke emails” and offensive comments regarding “hair color.” These intrusions, along with prohibitions on political and religious discourse, have caught the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Louisiana and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which have called for an immediate renunciation of the policy and denounced it as illegal.

The university’s approach to policing emails first gained attention with a July 13th mandate that students delete and “DO NOT FORWARD” all “political campaign solicitations,” as these would be considered a “violation of university and state policy.” Subsequently, FIRE challenged the constitutionality of the policy and described it as an inaccurate representation of Louisiana law and a “threat to freedom of expression.” FIRE director Adam Kissel called for its termination in a September 1st letter to the university’s president, Frank Pogue.

Rather than back down, on September 22nd Pogue and the university came out with an even broader set of prohibitions. As she released the policy to the public, Grambling’s director of public relations, Vanessa Littleton, however, asserted that the university “does not prohibit students or employees from political expression,” The policy read as follows:

Grambling State University email system shall not to be used for the creation or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs, or national origin… Sending chain letters or joke emails from a Grambling State University email account is prohibited.

The ACLU of Louisiana and FIRE described Grambling’s response as “insufficient.”

GSU’s response, rather than addressing our concerns, greatly magnifies them… [It] fails to retract or even acknowledge the prohibition on core political expression announced in its July 13 email to all students… A public university may not broadly deny its students the right to engage in such basic political speech… The policy cannot stand.

The free speech advocates also pointed out the vague language at play.

It is not clear what constitutes an “offensive message,” nor how anyone will know whether someone else will take offense at any particular message.

The enforcement mechanism, in addition to the prohibitions, also raised concerns. Employees who “receive any offensive emails … should report the matter to their supervisor immediately.” Not only are “offensive” emails off limits, employees are called to turn in others.

Pogue, via his assistants, declined the opportunity to accept an interview with the Pelican Institute. However, his interim executive assistant, Ellen Smiley, did say that “at this time we are reviewing our policies, and as soon as we have completed the process the university will release its official policy … We want to take our time with that process and do a good job.” She was not willing to say when this process would be complete or to comment any further.

With no explicit response from the university and the policy still in place, on the 1st of October FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy, Will Creeley, sent a letter to Pogue and five other university leaders. He restated FIRE’s and the ACLU of Louisiana’s concerns — that “a plain reading of the [email policy]… reveals obvious first amendment violations” — and reminded them that the government-funded university is “legally and morally bound to protect” the First Amendment.