Three area campuses in the Cal State University system and one University of California school in the region received warnings this week from a free speech group that says some of their institutional policies restrict student and faculty expression.
The nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued “red light” ratings — its most severe — to CSU campuses in Long Beach and Pomona, as well as Dominguez Hills in Carson and UC Riverside, which placed the schools among 111 across the nation that, according to the group, must “revise their unconstitutional policies or risk a First Amendment lawsuit and personal liability.”
FIRE mailed warning letters to the schools Tuesday. The organization cited anti-harassment policies at the three CSU schools in Southern California and at UC Riverside. The policies are similar in language.
For example, at Cal State Long Beach, sexual harassment is characterized, in part, as “unwelcome, offensive attention, requests, invitations, innuendo and/or conduct of a sexual or suggestive nature.”
Azhar Majeed, director policy reform for Philadelphia-based FIRE, said the wording is vague and can be interpreted broadly, to the extent that a university ends up cracking down on speech protected by the U.S. Constitution.
“They have a sexual harassment policy to include things like offensive speech, or perhaps speech another person might not like, but it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of sexual harassment as defined by law,” he said.
CSULB spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said the campus has not yet received FIRE’s warning letter.
“On any given day, CSULB is a hub of activists and advocates on a wide variety of issues, from the far right to the far left and everywhere in between,” Uhlenkamp said. “Our students gain exposure to an incredible variety of opinions, some affirming their personal beliefs while others test their values.”
Cal Poly Pomona has an anti-sexual harassment policy similar to CSULB, but FIRE also issued a red light rating for the Inland university’s housing policy, which says, in part, “threats, racist/sexist/ethnic harassment, malicious pranks and abusive name calling by any member of the community or guest toward an individual or group that seriously threatens or alarms a person or group is prohibited.”
A spokesman for the university said Wednesday that officials have not received the certified letter from FIRE, but they continue to look into the issue seriously.
Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson also has a housing policy that FIRE rated with a red light. The policy says sexual harassment includes “unwanted sexual advances, unwanted request for sexual favors and other unwanted verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature directed towards an employee, student, employment applicant or guest.”
Majeed said the policy is open-ended.
“It really raises the question of what exactly is ‘unwanted verbal conduct of a sexual nature,’” he said. “If you’re making a joke during a political discussion on sexual topics, is that then sexual harassment under the university’s understanding?”
William Franklin, vice president of Student Affairs at CSUDH, said in an email that the university believes in creating a respectful and supportive environment where students can exercise their rights to free speech.
“As we understand, the red designation is for one specific clause related to protecting students from sexual assault and sexual violence,” Franklin said. “We at Dominguez Hills take sexual harassment very seriously and consider it a non-starter. We have asked our counsel to look into the wording and will address the potential vague or misleading language in terms of free speech.”
Majeed speculated that many universities have similar policies simply because they may have wanted to save the time it takes to form a more nuanced approach, or perhaps because administrators have assumed that if “other universities are doing it, it makes it OK.”
FIRE issued a red light rating to UC Riverside for language in its anti-sexual harassment policy, which says examples include name-calling, offensive jokes and sexually suggestive remarks or gestures.
“Fire fully recognizes the universities have an obligation to address harassment and hostile environments, but when have a policy that states that specific behavior includes name-calling and offensive jokes, these are so broadly phrased that in the hands of the wrong administrator, one can envision how that would be enforced against offensive speech,” Majeed said.
Officials at UC Riverside declined to comment on the matter.
FIRE rates free speech policies at more than 400 colleges and universities in the nation.
Josh Dulaney is a writer for the Press-Telegram and can be reached at email@example.com.