A free speech nonprofit awarded Emory University a “green light” rating for its free speech policies, making Emory one of 37 U.S. universities with the highest free speech rating awarded by the nonprofit.

Emory’s Open Expression Committee and nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s (FIRE) policy reform department removed or revised the language of several Emory policies. The policies were revised over several months and included information technology (IT) resources, bias incidents and conduct codes.

A “green light” university indicates that FIRE, a nonprofit whose mission is to defend individual rights at American universities, has not identified “any serious threats to students’ free speech rights” in university policy.

Emory updated its IT policy July 2017 and removed rules that stated that students’ use of the University’s IT resources — which includes use of Emory wifi — should not reflect poorly on the institution, be used for supporting political candidates or campaigns or involve the viewing or distribution of pornography.  

The language about bias incident reporting changed because the language originally defined bias incorrectly. Instead, it provided the definition of discriminatory harassment, Chair of the Emory Open Expression Committee and Associate Professor of Law Sasha Volokh said. Emory also changed language to reflect that some but not all incidents may be subject to applicable disciplinary and legal processes.

The policy on reporting of a “bias incident,” which refers to the demonstrations of bias against a person, originally suggested that every time a bias incident occurred could be reprimanded with disciplinary action, according to Volokh.

Emory formerly stated in its Undergraduate Code of Conduct that one of the misuses of Emory computer or network resources was “using computer or network resources to send anonymous, obscene, unwanted, harassing or abusive messages.” That particular passage in the policy has now been rewritten to read that a misuse would be “using computer or network resources to transmit harassing or obscene material to another person; misrepresenting the identity of a sender; continuing to transmit messages/material using the network to a person who has communicated that messages/material are unwanted.”

Another section of the Undergraduate Code of Conduct that formerly forbade “engaging in conduct that is likely to cause physical injury or emotional distress or otherwise endanger any person” has been replaced with “engaging in conduct that is likely to cause foreseeable physical injury, or intentional or reckless conduct of an outrageous or extreme nature that causes severe emotional distress.”

FIRE previously classified Emory as a “red light” institution, as its policies had vague language regarding bias incidents, IT resources and the conduct code, according to FIRE Vice President of Policy Research Samantha Harris. A “red light” institution has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. Emory is the first university in Georgia to receive the highest free speech rating from FIRE’s Spotlight report, according to a Dec. 5 press release.

Volokh told the Wheel in an interview that he credits the University administration, which gave the Open Expression Committee wide authority to revise Emory open expression policies.

“I am very pleased and proud of Emory,” Volokh said. “The credit goes to all of the administrators, high level officials [and University President] Claire [E.] Sterk, who did not give us a hard time and have always been in favor of free speech and open expression.”

As a private university not directly bound by the First Amendment, Emory has been governed by the Respect for Open Expression Policy since October 2013. In the Respect for Open Expression Policy, Emory University states that it is committed to maintaining a setting where debate and the open expression of ideas are respected and promoted.

Volokh said Emory’s previous “red light” status Emory did not reflect the University’s policies.

“Even though we actually did have speech protective rules, there were a couple policies of stray language that FIRE had classified either as ‘red light’ or’ yellow light,’” Volokh said. “[This was] unfortunate, because [the old policies] didn’t really reflect the true situation at all.”

Volokh contacted Harris in Spring 2017 about revising the policy, and FIRE’s policy reform department and the Open Expression Committee began revising several of the University’s policies. The process completed October 2017, according to Volokh.

Harris also mentioned that there is still some room for improvement regarding bias incidents.

“Generally speaking, these [bias incident] policies are not ideal,” Harris said, “but you don’t want perfect to be the enemy of good and we know that Emory is very committed to open expression.”

FIRE did not factor in the Trump chalkings and Emory’s response to the incident as FIRE’s rating system is solely based on the University’s written policy, according to Harris.