College Cracking Down on Jokes

Update: University of Oregon dismisses charges against student who made a joke

University of Oregon
University of Oregon / Wikimedia Commons

Update, 4:30 p.m.: Hours after the publication of this story, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education issued a statement this afternoon announcing that the charges against the female student have been dropped.

"We’re pleased that the student is no longer weighed down by these chilling disciplinary charges and can focus on her education," said Peter Bonilla, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. "UO’s quick action here illustrates something we’ve long recognized at FIRE: Universities are seldom able to defend in public what they try to do in private."

Students at the University of Oregon began their fall semester on Monday amid controversy over conduct charges filed against a female student for making a joke.

David Rutz breaks down the most important news about the enemies of freedom, here and around the world, in this comprehensive morning newsletter.

Sign up here and stay informed!

The university is under fire for filing five charges against the student after she yelled "I hit it first" to a couple passing under her window during the summer semester. The student, who requested anonymity, said she did not know the couple and called out the phrase in jest, according to her account to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

FIRE is now calling on the university to drop the charges and revise what it calls unconstitutional speech codes.

"It is remarkable that the university apparently didn’t give a first thought to this student’s First Amendment rights before throwing the book at her and allowing these unconstitutional charges to hang over her head for the entire summer," said Peter Bonilla, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program, in a prepared statement yesterday.

"Incoming and returning UO students should be aware of the lack of regard shown by the university for their right to free speech," Bonilla said.

Aside from harassment, the student has been charged with "disruption" and "disorderly conduct." The notice of allegations she received from the university outlined all the charges.

The university’s policy defines harassment as "intentionally subjecting a person to offensive physical contact;" or "unreasonable insults, gestures, or abusive words, in the immediate presence, and directed to, another person that may reasonably cause emotional distress or provoke a violent response."

The student was reported to the resident assistant, who insisted she apologize for her remark to the couple.

However, four days after the incident the student received the letter from the university outlining the five conduct violations she currently faces for her four-word joke.

"The University of Oregon’s absurd overreaction is the real joke here, and it’s not very funny," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. "Using an unconstitutional speech code to punish a student for a joke shows how out of control censorship has become on our campuses in the name of making everyone feel ‘comfortable.’"

The University of Oregon did not respond to two letters from FIRE.

When reached for comment by the Washington Free Beacon, UO communications director Jennifer Winters emailed the following statement: "The university is not able to comment on this situation, as that information is protected by federal student privacy laws. I can tell you generally that the UO’s student conduct code does prohibit unlawful, discriminatory harassment, and that is appropriate and is not inconsistent with students’ free speech rights."

As FIRE noted in one of its letters to the university earlier this month, the Supreme Court has defined peer harassment in the educational setting as conduct "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive" as to effectively deprive the target of educational opportunities or benefits. The student’s isolated, four-word comment plainly fails to meet these criteria, according to FIRE.

FIRE is also calling on UO to revise its unconstitutional speech codes. In particular, its harassment policy which it says contains "unconstitutionally broad and vague prohibitions" such as "unreasonable insults," "gestures," and "abusive words" that may cause "emotional distress" to others.

"The charges against [name redacted] violate her rights to free expression and unacceptably chill the speech of UO students generally in violation of both the United States and Oregon constitutions," FIRE wrote.