Group gives two Georgia universities low marks for campus speech rules

Georgia Southern University Student is one of two schools to receive a red light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Georgia Southern University Student is one of two schools to receive a red light rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

A national organization that monitors college campus speech guidelines released an annual report Tuesday that gave two Georgia universities the lowest ratings on its system.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Georgia Southern University and Middle Georgia State University red light ratings on its scale for their sexual harassment policies.

“Georgia Southern and Middle Georgia State's policies provide definitions and examples that are far broader than (a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on campus sexual harassment guidelines),” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s senior program officer for policy reform.

“Georgia Southern says sexual harassment is any and all ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,’ and that ‘[s]tudents should and employees must report any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature regardless of severity or the number of occurrences so that Georgia Southern can take steps to address harassment before it creates a hostile environment.’ Middle Georgia State says examples of harassing conduct include ‘negative stereotyping’ and ‘graphic material that denigrates,’ and that ‘sexually suggestive’ materials and ‘off-color jokes or language’ ‘is specifically prohibited,’ ” Beltz said. “Those examples certainly might be a part of a pattern of conduct that constitutes harassment, but they're constitutionally protected when standing alone.”

Georgia Southern spokeswoman Jennifer Wise said its policy mirrors that of the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

“We take sexual harassment issues very seriously, and our policies are designed to ensure faculty, staff and students feel comfortable and know what to do when sexual misconduct is alleged,” she said.

Middle Georgia State officials said the policies FIRE used to base its rating on are no longer in effect and has asked the organization to update that information on its website.

Graduates move into place Monday for graduation ceremonies at Emory University as signs point the way Commencement took place on the Emory quadrangle for about 3,900 graduates. About 15,000 people attended.

Credit: John Spink

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Credit: John Spink

Speech rights for students have been an ongoing issue at several Georgia campuses. Kennesaw State University recently settled two lawsuits by student groups who claimed its policies were too restrictive.

Emory University received a green light rating, the best rating a school can get for its policy.

Among the Georgia colleges that had yellow ratings were the University of Georgia, Georgia State, Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech. Yellow light ratings mean the school’s policy “prohibit or have an impermissible chilling effect on constitutionally protected speech.”