Under Fire: “Vague” email policy could be seeing a change

Tyler Prochazka

After discovering the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, had given WKU a red light rating for what it deemed a violation of freedom of speech in the WKU student handbook, the Student Government Association has taken steps to remedy the situation.

FIRE is a non-profit organization that looks at university policies to see if there are violations of individual rights.

The controversy arose after FIRE issued a red light rating because of the email section of the student handbook. FIRE said it is overly vague and encroaches on students’ right to express themselves.


Under the “Computer Systems Security” section of the handbook, students are warned their “e-mail resources” may be “revoked at any time for inappropriate conduct.” This includes materials “reasonably likely to be perceived as offensive based on race, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, religious or political beliefs.”

The policy further states “advocating religious or political opinions” also could be considered inappropriate conduct.

Laura Harper, SGA’s director of public relations, crafted a resolution to support amending the offending policy. The resolution, titled Resolution 3-13-F, has already passed in SGA with only one dissenting vote.

However, this resolution does not amend the policy on its own. It only shows SGA’s support of amending the internet usage policies “to promote freedom of speech” and indicates SGA’s intention to negotiate with WKU over how the policy is written.

“If they wish to limit something, they need to explicitly state what in particular they are trying to limit and we can come to grounds together as the policy is revised to figure out whether that would be acceptable or not,” Harper said before the vote on the resolution.

Harper said emails in the religious, gender or art studies departments all “deal with content that could be deemed offensive on a daily basis.”

“We are not the Supreme Court. We don’t have to judge it as the Supreme Court would for us to see it as problematic,” Harper said.

Howard Bailey, vice president for Student Affairs, said before SGA began discussing the issue, his staff had already highlighted the email policy for further review and that he is willing to discuss how to change the policy.

While the policy is technically in the handbook, Bailey said he does not know of any student who has been reprimanded under this specific policy.

Bailey said the intent of the policy was not to stifle speech but rather to protect certain groups from hate crimes.

“The intent was that you not use our email to design a way to do harm to one of these groups,” Bailey said.

Referring to the “reasonably likely to be perceived as offensive” language in the policy, Bailey said he was also uncomfortable with how the policy was worded and that people have the freedom to say “hateful things.”

“Hate speech should be challenged with other speech, not suppressed,” he said.

Even if WKU wanted to reprimand students for violating this policy, staff members of Information Technology said it does not have the resources or interest for preemptively monitoring students’ emails.

“We have neither the time, the resources nor the inclination to be the internet police,” Bob Owen, vice president for Information Technology, said.

Owen said that the IT division has the technical capabilities to read the text of a student’s email, but they will only do this if asked by Judicial Affairs.

Any investigation into email would be conducted by a system administrator and would be overseen by Owen and Gordon Johnson, the associate vice president of IT, Owen said.

“We don’t go into anybody’s email accounts without authorization,” Owen said.

If Judicial Affairs asks for technical information as part of an investigation, Owen said IT has some ability to determine whether a student logged into WKU’s internet network at a certain time. The logs of internet activity only go back for one to two months, he said.

“There is very little we can do, and these types of things don’t hit our radar very often,” Owen said.

Although there have been no punishments of students who violated this policy, Harper said the fact that it exists in the handbook damages WKU’s reputation and harms students’ willingness to express themselves.

“Having a code in place that potentially limits (free speech) is enough in itself, I think, to chill speech,” Harper said.