Vague language in a UC Merced policy makes it ripe for abuse, according to a free speech watchdog, but campus leaders say they expect to revise the guideline in the near future.
The Philadelphia-based nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education gave UC Merced a “red light,” its worst rating, for campus policy on workplace violence, bias incidents, hate crimes and disruptive behaviors, according to Azhar Majeed, the nonprofit’s director of policy and reform.
The policy discusses language it describes as “hate,” “bullying” or “demeaning.” Majeed said those words are too vague and could allow the college to discipline students for speech that should be protected.
They then get brought up on disciplinary charges, whether it’s at the behest of the offended student or because an administrator himself or herself deems that to be punishable.
Azhar Majeed, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education director of policy and reform
“What happens all the time on college campuses is that a student or a faculty member says something that somebody else subjectively finds to be offensive or divisive or biased or what have you,” he said Friday. “They then get brought up on disciplinary charges, whether it’s at the behest of the offended student or because an administrator himself or herself deems that to be punishable.”
The nonprofit suggests that the school align its policy with the 1999 Supreme Court ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, which says student-to-student language is protected unless it’s “severe, pervasive and objectively offensive.”
The nonprofit is known to become involved in cases after disciplined students argue their rights have been violated, Majeed said.
UC Merced is in the process of changing the policy, work that’s been ongoing for at least 18 months, spokesman James Leonard said.
A revision of this policy is currently going through a vetting process and should be finalized soon.
James Leonard, a UC Merced spokesman
“A revision of this policy is currently going through a vetting process and should be finalized soon,” Leonard said in an email. “The new policy will no longer apply to the behaviors of students, who are covered by our student code of conduct.”
No students at UC Merced have been disciplined under the policy in question for the type of language that is prohibited, Leonard said. And the college has no intention to enforce the existing policy before a new one is adopted, he said.
UC Merced is not alone on the red-light list. More than 100 other colleges or universities – including the University of California, Irvine – are on the list. The rest of of the campuses in the University of California system received a “yellow light” grade, which is better than a red light but worse than a green light.