At Penn State University, “Acts of intolerance” are unacceptable and in order to prevent them and punish offenders the school has a “Report Hate” hotline and Web site.
The Web site, http://www.equity.psu.edu/ as well as the telephone hotline allows victims of discrimination, harassment, intolerance, hate crime and “bias motivated incidents” to anonymously submit a report of the incident. The incident can also be reported by anyone else who witnesses it, and according to a PDF file available on the site can apply to both on- and off-campus incidents.
“The University is committed to creating an educational environment which is free from intolerance directed toward individuals or groups and strives to create and maintain an environment that fosters respect for others. As an educational institution, the University has a mandate to address problems of a society deeply ingrained with bias and prejudice,” explains the introduction of Penn State’s Protocol for Responding to Bias Motivated Incidents which details the purpose of university policies regarding the bias motivated incidents and how they should be reported.
But “Report Hate” is only part of the reason Penn State is being sued by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) on behalf of sophomore Alfred Joseph (A.J.) Fluehr.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia on February 22, charges that PSU has a speech code centered around intolerance that is “vague, overbroad, and suppresses the discussion of ‘controversial’ viewpoints and its subjectivity allows for highly selective enforcement.”
According to the ADF, a second reason for the lawsuit is that “Penn State places further limits on free expression by singling out religious speech in its student fee funding program, refusing to recognize religious student organizations and withholding all funding if the group’s primary purpose is not “educational” – at the same time that Penn State funds other activities designed to convert individuals to different political, moral, cultural, or ideological points of view.”
Tysen Kendig from Penn State’s University Relations department said that university policy AD-29: Statement on Intolerance is not a speech code, but a behavior code and that the university has no policies that “infringe on individuals free speech rights.”
Policy AD-29 reads:
DEFINITION: Intolerance refers to an attitude, feeling or belief in furtherance of which an individual acts to intimidate, threaten or show contempt for other individuals or groups based on characteristics such as age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, national origin, political belief, race, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation or veteran status.
POLICY: Acts of intolerance will not be tolerated at The Pennsylvania State University. The University is committed to preventing and eliminating acts of intolerance by faculty, staff and students, and encourages anyone in the University community to report concerns and complaints about intolerance to the Affirmative Action Office or the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, and in cases involving students, reports also may be made to the Office of Judicial Affairs. . .
EXPRESSION OF OPINION: The expression of diverse views and opinions is encouraged in the University community. Further, the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution assures the right of free expression. In a community which recognizes the rights of its members to hold divergent views and to express those views, sometimes ideas are expressed which are contrary to University values and objectives. Nevertheless, the University cannot impose disciplinary sanctions upon such expression when it is otherwise in compliance with University regulations.
When asked if a Christian student condemning homosexual behavior as immoral would be deemed intolerant and subject to sanction by Penn State, Kendig said “No, that is a viewpoint and is free speech.”
However, university policy AD-42 defines harassment which is also prohibited. The policy states that “harassment may include, but is not limited to, verbal or physical attacks, written threats or slurs that relate to a person’s membership in a protected class, unwelcome banter, teasing, or jokes that are derogatory, or depict members of a protected class in a stereotypical and demeaning manner, or any other conduct which has the purpose or effect of interfering unreasonably with an individual’s work or academic performance or creates an offensive, hostile, or intimidating working or learning environment.”
Protected classes are written in the discrimination section of AD-42 and are as follows: age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, national origin, race, religious creed, sex, sexual orientation or veteran status.
And in Penn State’s Protocol on Bias Motivated Incidents, it includes the definition of hate crime and bias motivated incidents. “A bias motivated incident is conduct, speech, or expression that is motivated by bias based on actual or perceived age, ancestry, color, disability or handicap, gender expression, national origin, race, religious creed, gender, sexual orientation or veteran status, but does not rise to the level of a criminal offense [which would be a hate crime].”
Another interesting Penn State policy mentioned in the legal complaint filed by the ADF is a statement on Free Expression and Disruption, which says that the “University recognizes, respects and protects all peaceful, non-obstructive expressions of dissent, whether individual or collective,” but only when they are “within University regulations.”
Penn State facilities are governed by a speech zone policy, in other words, areas of expression for use by student organizations are limited and permission must be obtained in order to use them. “Upon information and belief, any ‘Speaking, literature distribution, poster or sign displays, petitioning and similar noncommercial activities’ or ‘expressive activity’ outside the classroom that does not take place in designated areas is prohibited and violates the speech zone policy,” says Page 10 of the ADF’s legal complaint and quotes from the Policy Manual and Student Guide.
The ADF contends that the policies regarding funding of student organizations particularly discriminate against religious student groups because the Student Activity Fee Handbook and Policies and Rules for Student Organizations expressly state that groups will not receive funding if they discriminate against any of the previously mentioned “protected classes” or if they hold activities in which the “primary purpose is to engage in the willing act of attempting to convert another person to accept the religious beliefs or faith of any individual or groups, or whose primary purpose is to engage in a religious celebration or ceremony or other worship service, except when such activity is for educational purposes.”
The speech codes are infringing on First and Fourteenth Amendments rights of students according to the ADF. The ADF wants Penn State to get rid of the unconstitutional policies and are seeking damages on behalf of Fluehr.
David French, head of the ADF’s Center for Academic Freedom said, “Universities are supposed to be the marketplace of ideas. Students on campus have the First Amendment right to get a degree and maintain their religious and political views. One should not be contingent upon the other.”
Julia A. Seymour is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.