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Free speech? Public university in Alabama bans 'harsh' text messages, 'embarrassing' pictures
A public Alabama university has banned "harsh" text messages, earning it a poor rating for free speech. ( oatawa)

Free speech? Public university in Alabama bans 'harsh' text messages, 'embarrassing' pictures

A public university in Alabama has announced that it will ban students from sending harsh text messages and spreading rumors under its sweeping cyberbullying and cyber harassment policy.

The policy earned the University of West Alabama's code of conduct the worst possible rating from a campus free-speech watchdog group, The College Fix reported.

What does it ban?

Under the policy, students are barred from sending “harsh text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.”

Also cited are “instances where social media can cause harm to the university or member of the UWA community.” But the examples listed in the policy do not include harsh text messages or rumors.

A campus civil rights advocacy group, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, gave the University of West Alabama a "red light" rating for its restrictions on free speech.

“The University of West Alabama’s ‘Cyberbullying and Cyber Harassment Policy Statement’ earns FIRE’s worst ‘red light’ rating because it is a clear and substantial restriction on constitutionally protected expression,” Laura Beltz, a policy reform program operator at FIRE, said in a statement.

“Online messages do not lose First Amendment protection simply because they’re subjectively viewed as harsh, embarrassing, or as an unverified rumor,” Beltz told The College Fix. “For example, a single tweet that criticizes the university administration would be punishable under this policy, but would typically be protected by the First Amendment.”

Additionally, the policy should be revised to reflect the Supreme Court’s “standard for peer harassment in the educational setting,” according to Beltz:

That standard requires conduct to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that the individual is effectively denied equal access to the university’s resources and opportunities — far from a single harsh text or an embarrassing email. By revising the definition this way, the university can respond to conduct that prevents a student from receiving his or her education without infringing on protected speech.

Has anyone been punished under the policy?

The university has not said whether any students have been punished under the policy.

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