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UNG clarifying code of conduct on free speech after group's criticism
UNG Gainesville

University of North Georgia officials said they are adding clarifying language to the student code of conduct amid complaints by a civil liberties advocacy group.

Founded in 1999, the libertarian-leaning, Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education promises “to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities.”

In its “Speech Code of the Month” column published last month, the group criticized UNG for its handbook definition of discrimination as “conduct and/or expressions that harass, demean, or degrade any individual or group of individuals who are members of a protected class.”

“This policy prohibits an extraordinary amount of constitutionally protected speech — speech that the University of North Georgia, a public institution, is required by the First Amendment to protect,” the group states.

Hate speech has been restricted in some European countries, with civil penalties for offenses. In Germany, it’s illegal to publicly deny the Holocaust.

But the courts in America have traditionally established higher hurdles to infringe on speech.

“There has long been a legal distinction between hate speech, which is protected First Amendment activity, and conduct that rises to the level of unlawful discrimination or harassment, which is not protected by the First Amendment,” Sylvia Carson, spokeswoman for UNG, said in an email.

The Foundation states that an “objectively offensive” standard must be applied to speech to determine whether it rises to the level of criminal harassment.

“This important requirement ensures that students’ free speech rights are not beholden to the vagaries of every listener’s individual temperament,” it added. “If the university can punish speech and expression simply because someone else finds it demeaning or degrading, all manner of expression on controversial topics will be subject to punishment.”

This marks the second time in recent months that a civil liberties group has targeted its efforts locally.

In August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia claimed that actions by the Oakwood Police during a July 1 campus carry protest violated the First Amendment.

Protesters of the state’s new campus carry law were located near the University of North Georgia, when they were told by Oakwood police that signs must be approved by the department and that a peddler’s license and a permit for the sidewalk protest were required, according to an ACLU letter.

The ACLU claimed “each of these requirements is unconstitutional as applied to peaceful sidewalk protests like the one that occurred here.”

As for the demands of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Carson said changes to the code of conduct will more accurately portray what UNG already respects.

“The University of North Georgia is committed to the protection of individuals’ rights under the First Amendment,” she said. Changes will “properly reflect UNG’s practice of allowing and encouraging expression protected by the First Amendment while also prohibiting unlawful discrimination and harassment.”