Speech Climate

For the first time Furman University was included in the College Free Speech Rankings from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE)

​Furman Places 163rd out of 248 in FIRE’s 2024 College Free Speech Rankings – 78% of Furman Students are Uncomfortable Disagreeing with a Professor.

Here are a few highlights.

According to data collected by FIRE and College Pulse, a stunning 78% of the 238 Furman students surveyed are very or somewhat uncomfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial political topic, just 3% felt very comfortable. 

Sixty-three percent felt very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing views on a controversial political topic in a class discussion and 62% shared these feelings when it came to a written assignment. And 78% of students feel some, a good deal, or a great deal of pressure to avoid discussing controversial topics in class.

Self-censorship in the classroom is rampant at Furman.  And isn’t the classroom precisely where students should be encouraged to think critically?  

But it is not only the classroom. Some 62% of students responded that they would feel very or somewhat uncomfortable expressing their views on a controversial political topic to other students “during a discussion in a common campus space such as a quad, dining hall, or lounge.” Is this what we expect from a university dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge? 

But there is some good news here as well. 

While students appear to be fearful of disagreeing with a professor or speaking openly about difficult political issues to fellow students, they believe the administration will defend their right to speak.  

Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said it was extremely, very, or somewhat clear that the administration protects free speech on campus.  Good to see the students believe the administration has their back. 

We must do everything we can to encourage the administration to continue to defend open inquiry on campus.  But it needs to take a serious look at what these survey results say about its faculty and its campus culture in general. At the very least, it should ask itself the question: is our faculty promoting free inquiry or not? 

Liberal education is a joke without free speech. 

​That is why the Furman Free Speech Alliance urges all those who care about the university’s future to join us in focusing on the primary reason this institution exists. 

As noted in the Princeton Principles for a Campus Culture of Free Inquiry, “The core mission of the university, and its distinctive contribution to the American republic, is the pursuit of truth and advancement of knowledge through scholarship and teaching. This mission is sustained by freedom of inquiry, freedom of expression, and equality before laws and campus regulations. The best universities cultivate free and thoughtful minds.”

The College Free Speech Rankings suggest that Furman, in some important respects, is failing its students and needs to focus more clearly on its mission. 

If you are interested in the methodology of this survey, details can be found here

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Speech Codes at Furman University

Although Furman, as a private college, is not legally bound by the First Amendment, the university’s “Values” include support for the “quest for knowledge and meaning, we steadfastly protect freedom of inquiry….” Elsewhere, the university’s “Sexual Misconduct Policy” states that “Furman affirms its commitment to academic freedom…Furman recognizes that an essential function of education is a probing of opinions and an exploration of ideas, some of which, because they are controversial, may cause students and others discomfort.” In spite of these commitments, Furman maintains several policies that restrict speech that is protected under First Amendment standards. FIRE has compiled a page with all of Furman's restrictive speech policies here.

​1. Harassment Policies

Furman maintains several policies regulating harassment that do not sufficiently track the student-on-student (or peer) hostile environment harassment set forth by the Supreme Court in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education 526 U.S. 629, 651 (1999): “[u]nwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a person equal access to the recipient’s education program or activity.” (emphasis added).

Both the “red light” provision of the “Sexual Misconduct Policy” and the “yellow light” “Harassment” provision in the Student Conduct Code fail to track this standard, albeit in differing ways. The provision of the Sexual Misconduct Policy earns our worst, red light rating because it reserves the right to “address conduct that, although it does not rise to the level of constituting Sexual Misconduct as defined by this Policy, is nevertheless offensive and/or unwanted conduct of a sexual nature.” In doing so, the university reserves the right — in its sole discretion — to punish nearly any behavior of a sexual nature that is offensive or unwanted. This broad policy language could easily be abused to punish expression protected under First Amendment standards.

Further, when the policy does define behaviors that would constitute harassment, it falls short of the Court’s standard in Davis by stating that unwelcome sexual conduct means “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal, nonverbal, graphic, or physical conduct of a sexual nature when...The behavior is both (i) severe, persistent, or pervasive and (ii) objectively offensive, such that it unreasonably limits or interferes with the individual’s ability to participate in or benefit from the University’s education, on-campus living, or employment programs or activities by creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive, or demeaning environment.” Allowing even objectively offensive speech that is either “severe” or “pervasive,” but not both, to be actionable would mean that mildly offensive speech that is repeated would become punishable if a student feels that this speech effectively denies them access to their education. The provision is further problematic due to its list of examples, which states that harassment includes “unwelcome commentary about an individual's body or sexual activities” and “unwelcome sexually oriented teasing, joking, flirting, or lewd comments, innuendos, or gestures” without tying the examples to a governing standard. As a result, a single off-color joke could be punishable under this policy.

Next, the Student Conduct Code’s provision on Harassment suffers from similar (although not as severe) defects, earning it a yellow light rating. This policy defines discriminatory harassment as “verbal…conduct that denigrates or shows hostility or aversion toward a targeted student on the basis of” a protected class that is “both (a) severe, persistent, or pervasive and (b) objectively offensive, such that it unreasonably limits or interferes with the individual’s ability to participate in or benefit from the University’s education, on-campus living, or employment programs or activities by creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive, or demeaning environment.” This mirrors the provision discussed above and also maintains a list of examples that could subject speech protected under First Amendment standards to punishment. Both provisions should be revised to track the Davis standard for peer harassment. Notably, the “Sexual Misconduct Policy” provision on “Hostile Envionment Sexual Harassment” does adopt this standard for peer harassment in compliance with the Department of Education’s 2020 Title IX regulations

2. Bias Incident Response & Support Policy

Furman’s Bias policy broadly defines bias incidents as “any conduct that serves no scholarly purpose appropriate to the academic environment and demonstrates prejudice or intolerance against an individual or group based on any identity classification” enumerated elsewhere in the policy. While examples such as “comments that express harmful stereotypes,” or “sexist or racist language or images” could be part of a pattern of conduct that does meet the legal standard for student-on-student (or peer) harassment or be part of an unlawful hate crime, they are typically protected under First Amendment standards when standing alone. 

Further, while the policy states that it is “not a disciplinary procedure and does not investigate, arbitrate, or replace other Furman procedures or services,” by declaring examples of expression that would be protected under First Amendment standards are “behavior antithetical to the University’s values,” the university casts doubt on its own promise not to discipline students under this policy. 

As a result, this policy threatens to cast a chilling effect over the campus, as students are likely to self-censor in order to avoid punishment over whatever speech is deemed “biased” by the administration. The policy should be revised to make clear that students will not be investigated or punished over reported speech that is protected under First Amendment standards. 

3. Student Conduct Code: Act of Intolerance 

This policy, which FIRE wrote to Furman about in 2019, broadly defines acts of intolerance as “any conduct that serves no scholarly purpose appropriate to the educational experience and demonstrates bias against others” because of an enumerated protected characteristic that “cause[s] or reasonably be intended to cause intimidation, alienation, or other harm to individuals in the Furman community.” By broadly defining prohibited behavior in this way, the university permits the investigation and potential punishment of speech that is protected under First Amendment standards. 

The Act of Intolerance policy is problematic for several reasons. First, the university should refine its definition of what it considers an act of intolerance to ensure it does not include speech that would be protected under First Amendment standards. Further, the university’s overly broad definition of acts of intolerance permits significant administrative discretion. Given the breadth of speech protected under First Amendment standards that could fall under this definition, students could easily be subject to punishment for speech that may be subjectively offensive, but protected under this standard. Additionally, without defining the bounds of the resulting “alienation” or “harm,” nearly any reported result of such behavior could land a student in trouble. 

Finally, Furman should eliminate the purported examples from this policy that serve to confuse the issue of what type of speech is punishable at the university. At present, the provided examples include speech that is likely protected under First Amendment standards. One example that “may prompt additional investigation” is “[t]heme parties that encourage people to wear costumes or act in ways that reinforce stereotypes or are otherwise demeaning.”

4. Student Conduct Code: Use of University Space, Solicitation

Consistent with First Amendment standards, the university may put in place reasonable “time, place, and manner” restrictions on campus events and student expression in order to limit disruptions to the university’s institutional functions. However, this policy would likely not be considered reasonable for several reasons. First, by reserving the right to refuse any requested use of space that is “inconsistent with the mission, character, and values of the University” in its “sole discretion,” Furman retains unbridled discretion to determine what types of speech will be permitted on campus. This is not permissible under First Amendment standards and is not consistent with Furman’s promises of free expression. 

Further, the policy broadly defines events as “any planned gathering of individuals or groups” and requires all such gatherings to be registered with the university 14 days in advance. Although the policy does permit spontaneous gatherings that do not require 14-day advanced notice, it also requires these events to undergo administrative review before being permitted (and does not provide guidelines for how such decisions will be made). This policy should be revised to affirm students should register large-scale events, or events otherwise likely to necessitate university coordination or planning, but are permitted to spontaneously demonstrate so long as they are not disruptive to campus operations. 

5. Student Conduct Code: Posting of Signs and Banners

First, the policy’s requirement that students “must have the name of the individual student or registered student organization and/or department clearly identified as the sponsor” on all postings would likely not be considered reasonable under First Amendment standards. The requirement to include contact information in every posting denies students the ability to post anonymously, which is typically protected expressive activity under First Amendment standards. 

Further, the policy yet again retains broad discretion to the administration to police speech on campus, stating: “The University retains the right to deny posting of any materials on campus.” This provision opens up the possibility for viewpoint discrimination, since this policy does not explain what types of signs or posters could meet this threshold. This provision should be deleted and the policy should only retain the content- and viewpoint-neutral guidelines by which the administration will approve or deny such postings that are in the current policy, such as parameters on size, posting locations, and bans on not posting over other signs.

6. Student Conduct Code: Bullying and/or Harassment

This policy defines bullying and/or harassment “as an electronic, physical, verbal, or graphic conduct(s) that is so severe, pervasive, or persistent that it either causes actual harm to a person’s physical/mental well-being, property, or educational experience or causes a person to reasonably fear that imminent harm to her/his physical/mental well-being, property, or educational experience will occur.” Any conduct the university wishes to prohibit under the category of “bullying” is best governed by the standard set forth in Davis, discussed above, to prevent peer harassment and the creation of a hostile environment: defined as conduct that is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” This revision would carefully balance the First Amendment rights of students and the obligation of the university to prohibit unlawful harassment that prevents students from obtaining an education. 

7. Student Organization Conduct Expectations: Demeaning Behavior

This policy prohibits “demeaning behavior,” defined as “[a]ny actions, activities, events or themes, whether on or off campus, which are demeaning and/or discriminatory based on a person’s” membership in an enumerated group, “including but not limited to verbal harassment, sexual harassment, and sexual misconduct by individuals or members acting together.” While some of the behaviors described in this policy could rise to the level of harassment or other unlawful conduct, most “demeaning” themes or activities standing alone consist of expression protected under First Amendment standards. For example, under this policy, a conservative student group hosting a speaker to discuss the Supreme Court’s upcoming docket, which includes cases that pertain to LGBTQ issues and rights, could be deemed “demeaning and/or discriminatory” based on sexual orientation and thus prohibited under this policy. This policy should be revised to only ban student groups from violating university policy, not an amorphous, subjective ban on “demeaning” behavior.  

Effect of Speech Codes on Furman

By any measure, these are troubling findings.  But they are hardly a surprise to anyone following campus activities over the last several years or the administration’s waning concern with free and open inquiry at Furman. 

The consequences of Furman’s posture toward freedom of speech were on full display in February and March, 2023 when two approved speakers had to be offered police protection to come on campus and address students.  One of those speakers did indeed come to campus and was provided with a police escort, the other declined the invitation fearing at least the possibility of violence.  Welcome to Furman 2023. Coverage in the national media of these sorry events can be found here

Of particular note:  posters advertising these approved speakers were defaced or ripped down … twice.  So far, the administration has said nothing about this violation of free speech, thus sending the message that it has no problem with removing advertisements for approved speakers.

A Misunderstanding of What Diversity Means in an Academic Environment 

One of the roadblocks to open inquiry at Furman is its embrace of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion that now infuses every aspect of campus life.  On its face, DEI appears an admirable set of aspirations, but Furman’s narrow understanding leads to anything but admirable outcomes.  

Here is a passage from Furman’s DEI Vision Statement detailing the kinds of diversity the university aims to cultivate:

“Recognizing and respecting the inherent worth of each individual and respecting differences among groups, the university aspires to create a community of people representing a multiplicity of identities including, but not limited to, gender, race, religion, spiritual belief, sexual orientation, geographic origin, socioeconomic background, ideology, world view, and varied abilities.” 

Read the full statement here 

No mention here of diversity of political perspectives, let alone an acknowledgment of the role diversity of thought plays in education. Furman’s DEI Vision Statement allows us to understand what it means by “diversity.” This is one reason why open debate on a variety of ideological and political perspectives is discouraged at Furman.

The Bias Incidence Reporting System

Furman’s Bias policy broadly defines bias incidents as “any conduct that serves no scholarly purpose appropriate to the academic environment and demonstrates prejudice or intolerance against an individual or group based on any identity classification” enumerated elsewhere in the policy. While examples such as “comments that express harmful stereotypes,” or “sexist or racist language or images” could be part of a pattern of conduct that does meet the legal standard for student-on-student (or peer) harassment or be part of an unlawful hate crime, they are typically protected under First Amendment standards when standing alone. Further, while the policy states that it is “not a disciplinary procedure and does not investigate, arbitrate, or replace other Furman procedures or services,” by declaring examples of expression that would be protected under First Amendment standards are “behavior [] antithetical to the University’s values,” the university casts doubt on its own promise not to discipline students under this policy. As a result, this policy threatens to cast a chilling effect over the campus, as students are likely to self-censor in order to avoid punishment over whatever speech is deemed “biased” by the administration. 

A Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Bureaucracy 

On its own, administrative positions concerned with DEI are not objectionable.  Two factors, however, suggest there is a serious problem. The first problem is that there is not a person in the DEI bureaucracy with the responsibility to encourage political diversity or free and open inquiry. Second, the overwhelming number of positions are dedicated in some form or another to advocate for DEI.  

Recently, President Davis announced five promotions and new hires in the DEI bureaucracy. And “each of these positions and others around campus will work closely with the university’s chief diversity officer."  Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Beth Pontari is leading the national search for these positions, which will be elevated to a vice president role. 

This accounts for seven positions in the Furman administration dedicated to DEI, none of which has any responsibility for ensuring a diversity of thought or academic excellence.  

Furman describes itself in job ads as a university that is striving to “create an anti-racist community.”  This is the mandatory language for every job ad.

Anti-racism doesn’t simply mean being opposed to discrimination.  It is a controversial ideological position with specific policy implications.  As the most important proponent of anti-racism today, Ibram X. Kendi (Professor at Boston University), defines and explains the term: 

“Anti-Racism is the practice of actively identifying and opposing racism. The goal of anti-racism is to actively change policies, behaviors, and beliefs that perpetuate racist ideas and actions.”  That might sound simply like support for anti-discrimination.  But he continues: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

So, what kind of discrimination is Furman practicing to fulfill its mission of being an anti-racist community?

Here is the language from a Furman job ad:​

“Furman University is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all facets of university life, and strives to create an anti-racist community through inclusive excellence in teaching, mentorship, and programming. Numerous initiatives and programs are underway or planned to promote these ideals, including: historic projects, dialogue initiatives, the Center for Inclusive Communities, and a major in Africana Studies.”

Faculty need to be hired on the basis of normal criteria for teaching and academic success not on the basis of adherence to current ideological trends

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