ON-Lion Letter

In October, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) in Philadelphia wrote to the University of California, Davis about a module in the university's online sexual-assault training that required students to identify certain types of speech as "problematic" in order to complete the training and register for classes.  As recounted by FIRE's Samantha Harris, "the module contained a section on 'Harmful Language,' which informed students that phrases such as 'I'd hit that!' or 'I stalked him/her on Facebook' can 'have a significant impact on normalizing violence.'  Students were then asked to complete an activity in which they matched those words and phrases with 'why they are problematic.'" 

FIRE told UC Davis that the exercise amounted to a form of compelled speech in which students were required to affirm certain viewpoints in order to register for classes there.  At first, the university tepidly agreed to review the program, but defended the slides to which FIRE had objected.

In November, however, UC Davis senior campus counsel Michael Sweeney e-mailed FIRE to say that, based on its now-completed review of the program, "we have removed the 'Harmful Language' slide and 'Words that Hurt' activity.  We will ensure that any new slides will not in any way require students to adopt certain viewpoints or affirm that any speech is objectionable.

"UC Davis is committed to the highest standards of freedom of expression and independent thought for the members of the University community, and continually works to ensure that all of our programs and activities are consistent with these standards," Sweeney also wrote.  "We always welcome your organization's valuable perspective on our programs and activities.  Thank you once again for bringing this to our attention."

"FIRE applauds UC Davis for doing the right thing," according to FIRE's Harris.  "We understand the tremendous amount of pressure on universities, from federal regulators and others, to address sexual assault on campus in ways that compromise students' rights to free speech and due process.  No federal agency, however, can require that a public university violate students' constitutional rights, and FIRE will work with as many universities as we need to, for as long as we need to, in order to make sure this is understood."

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee substantially supports FIRE.

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