I’ve been discussing free expression and the First Amendment in my journalism classes this week, and using free speech (or lack thereof) on college campuses. Public universities, like Bridgewater State University, are required as state agencies to respect the constitutional rights of their students. This is well-established in case law and generally considered a good thing: the free exchange of ideas without self-censorship or fear of reprimand for putting forward an unpopular opinion allows students and faculty members to debate opposing viewpoints and ultimately develop stronger ideas.
This is considered so important that most schools reiterate the rights. On BSU’s code of student conduct, students are told all BSU community members have the “rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.” In the student handbook, the policy is extended:
“Bridgewater State College recognizes the right of individuals to exercise all forms of constitutionally protected expression and free speech without prior restraint or censorship. The college acknowledges that public discourse may include the discussion of controversial ideas, and the college will not limit public discourse based solely on its communicative content.
“Exposure to a wide array of ideas, viewpoints, opinions, and creative expression is an integral part of a college education, preparing students for life in a diverse global society. The rights of freedom of speech, expression, petition, religion, and public assembly are basic and essential to an individual’s intellectual and social development.”
Good stuff, right? The problem is, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, that same student handbook – like codes of conduct at hundreds of other universities and colleges in the U.S. — contradicts itself and lays our harassment policies and policies on where and when students can hold assemblies. These policies, if interpreted and enforced to the letter, would have the exact opposite effect than the mission statement.
Download audio (.WMA) of lecture this post was based on (March 30, 2011 at Bridgewater State University)
A lot of schools have adopted tested harassment and discrimination policies. The problem is, according to FIRE, those policies have been tested in cases involving the workplace. The typical office does not usually have upholding the First Amendment as a core component of its mission. The typical public university, on the other hand, does.
I first fell in love with FIRE when I read a quote from their executive director that said something along the lines of “Students who are not offended once during their four years in college should ask for their money back.”
This is vitally important stuff, as someone who went to an overly politically-correct school in the overly politically-correct early 1990’s and often felt I had to censor myself. As FIRE notes on its Web site:
”If universities applied these rules to the letter, major voices of public criticism, satire, and commentary would be silenced on American campuses, and some of our greatest authors, artists, and filmmakers would be banned. These codes also lead students to believe they have an absolute right to be free from offense, embarrassment, or discomfort. As a result, other students begin the compromise of self-censorship.
“These attitudes stay with students long after graduation. If students on our nation’s campuses learn that jokes, remarks, and visual displays that “offend” someone may rightly be banned, they will not find it odd or dangerous when the government itself seeks to censor and to demand moral conformity in the expression of its citizens. A nation that does not educate in freedom will not survive in freedom, and will not even know when it has lost it.
I’ve given the lecture three times already this week, and plan to give it once more next week. It’s been evolving over the course of this school year, and, while I often am pretty good at holding a classroom’s attention, this lecture is the one point in the semester where I usually get to see that look of recognition cross at least a few people’s faces, that look that suggests I just taught them something they’re not going to forget and twisted their world view a bit.
Bridgewater State, for the record, is by no means a worst-case example of free-speech suprression. I’m going to leave you with a few of the more drastic examples of bad student conduct codes that I came across while researching this lecture on FIRE’s Web site:
California State University–Chico’s definition of sexual harassment makes it difficult for faculty to comply with the policy when discussing controversial but wholly germane topics in classes the school offers that necessarily involve sensitive issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Claremont McKenna College in California has an “acceptable email usage policy” that bars students from sending messages that might be construed as disparaging on the basis of political beliefs or that is offensive in any other way. That could be interpreted to include any email that mentions core religious and political expression.
Marshall University in West Virginia bans any conduct that causes “embarrassment.”
The Code of Student Conduct at Moorpark College, a public community college in California, prohibits any “profanity, vulgarity, or other offensive conduct.”
Organizers of rallies deemed “controversial” by administrators at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst need to provide five days notice of the event, limit the event to just one hour, and provide their own security in the form of members of the student group.
The College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. has banned students from “unintentionally causing emotional injury through careless or reckless behavior.”
Davidson College in North Carolina does not permit students to make “comments or inquiries about dating.”
My lecture notes (MS Word).
A very rough Prezi I’ve been using (the picture of the woman is a student from Kansas who was expelled for a picture she posted on her Facebook page):