Can a Professor Require Civility?

November 19, 2012

A new kind of "civil" rights debate is brewing at Queen’s University in Ontario.

At issue is the "civility clause" psychology professor Jill Jacobson included in her third-year course syllabus, which some view as encroaching on free speech rights. A formal complaint launched against Jacobson earlier this year has come to light in recent days, inciting a Canadian media firestorm, and the university is now reviewing the policy.

Jacobson instituted the clause — which threatens a 10 percent reduction in a student’s final mark for a first offense — to assure that adjuncts and teaching assistants maintain authority over students during her maternity leave early next year, she said (the course is a yearlong requirement for psychology majors). A previous maternity leave left her replacements with little recourse against disruptive or aggressive students, she added.

"If your question is not answered to your satisfaction on the first attempt, please accept the instructor’s or TA’s need to resume with the lecture or tutorial and instead speak with him or her after class or arrange
a separate meeting outside of class time," the clause reads. "Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting, and inappropriate behavior and language will not be tolerated in this class regardless of the context in which such actions occur (i.e., in person, in email, online, in peer reviews, etc.)."

Jacobson has been teaching at Queen’s for 11 years and said she’s never experienced similarly uncivil student behavior outside her third-year course. Still, she said she didn’t foresee enacting the penalty unless the behavior was "egregious," and expressed surprise at the amount of attention her policy is receiving.

But Isabelle Duchaine, a fourth-year academic affairs commissioner with the university’s undergraduate student government body, the Alma Mater Society, said the anonymous complaint filed against the policy
held merit.

"My concern with the civility clause is predicated on practical application, in terms of its scope," she said, noting that an offense committed in September wouldn’t have bearing on a student’s grade until the end
of the academic year in May. The clause also conflates "annoying" behavior with "offensive" behavior, Duchaine added, without defining either.

The student academic affairs commissioner said universitywide policies already in place should govern student behavior. But Jacobson said her policy is in line with the university’s Academic Regulation 1, which allows for reductions in grades for violating codes of conduct.

John Pierce, associate dean of studies at the Faculty of Arts and Science, said via e-mail: "I recently learned of this clause and am currently looking into the matter and working with both the students and the department of psychology to determine what the next steps might be. The university highly values a respectful and inclusive learning environment for students, teaching assistants and faculty members."

Queen’s librarian Constance Adamson, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, a union representing 27 Ontario faculty organizations, said she had no official position on the matter. But she said the clause — especially Jacobson’s academically punitive step — was a novel one at the university. It’s not uncommon to hear professors talk about difficult classroom environments, however,
she said, particularly since Ontario higher education institutions have become more crowded during the past several years, as public funding for students has increased. Indeed, Jacobson said maximum enrollment
in her psychology course has increased from 90 to 140 in recent years, and the requirements for students wishing to major in psychology have been relaxed.

Jacobson said she felt the student government officers forwarding the case against her were "pro-bullying," and "counter to Ontario labor laws that protect employees and thus my TAs from verbal abuse." Discussions thus far with the student government haven’t been "all that useful because they’ve equated freedom of speech with academic freedom with the right to be abusive," she said.

Still, others outside Queen’s University said Jacobson’s clause goes too far.

Robert O’Neil, a free speech expert and former University of Virginia president and law professor, said the clause paints a "kitchen sink" picture of uncivil behavior — labeling everything from inappropriate to rude
as grounds for punitive action. And while he understood Jacobson’s desire to give her policy teeth, he said he couldn’t support grade reductions against offending students and instead advocated "hortatory," pro-
civility discussions.

Robert Kreiser, senior program officer at the American Association of University Professors and adjunct history professor at George Mason University, said civility clauses resemble speech codes. The association
rejects such codes as inconsistent with the principles of academic freedom.

Although he acknowledged differences between Canadian and U.S. free speech laws, Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said it has long been established that student free speech can’t be limited on U.S. public university campuses "in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’ ” The precedent was set by 1973′s Supreme Court case Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, which found that students can’t be punished for offensive speech that doesn’t disrupt campus order or interfere with others’ rights.

Additionally, said Lukianoff, author of Unlearning Liberty: Campus Censorship and the End of the American Debate, social scientists have been studying the "silent classroom" phenomenon — a decline in robust and meaningful classroom debate — spanning the past decade with concern.

"Queen’s University is clearly concerned that this broad attempt to keep lessons from being disrupted will chill the speech and interaction of students," he said.

Here is the full text of Jacobson’s civility clause:

"The teaching assistants and instructors do not take any joy in seeing you perform poorly, and the requirements of this course were designed to improve your skills and better prepare you for future challenges, not antagonize you. Thus we need not have an adversarial relationship, nor should we be subjected to a hostile work environment. To this end, it is course policy that everyone be treated with mutual respect and civility. You are free to question the views offered in this course and to come to their own conclusions about debatable issues. We welcome and encourage such critical thinking. However, you do need to demonstrate respect for diversity including ideas and approaches that differ from your own personal preferences or prior learning experiences. Also, during class time, please be respectful of the other students, and the instructor’s or TA’s obligation to cover the course material within the allotted time. If your question is not answered to your satisfaction on the first attempt, please accept the instructor’s or TA’s need to resume with the lecture or tutorial and instead speak with him or her after class or arrange a separate meeting outside of class time. Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting, and inappropriate behavior and language will not be tolerated in this class regardless of the context in which such actions occur (i.e., in person, in email, online, in peer reviews, etc.) The first offense will result in a 10 percent reduction in your final mark, and violations in person will result in the student’s removal from the classroom. The student will still be responsible for the material covered, but he or she will lose the opportunity to earn any points available for that class period. If a student continues to act in the same manner during future lectures or labs, the instructor reserves the right to drop the student from the course and/or pursue disciplinary action at the university level."