Do you have the right to not be offended?

September 26, 2005

In many schools, speech codes and guidelines are written and enforced with the intention of protecting the general student body. Often, these codes are accepted with little to no opposition from faculty members or students.

However, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education or FIRE, many rules attempting to regulate speech in colleges and universities, including UAlbany, violate the First Amendment.

According to Samantha Harris, an attorney from FIRE, most universities tend to act “in loco parentis,” meaning they attempt to fulfill the role of parents on campus. “This approach is problematic because it limits a student’s right to voice their opinion;” said Harris. “Speech Codes violate student rights because they are overbroad as well as vague.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that language is only harassment when it is persistent, pervasive, and severe. A public university only has the right to regulate speech when it falls within the boundaries of the aforementioned categories.

FIRE has given UAlbany’s policy a “red light” rating; claiming it violates student’s rights. Some of the codes in question include the sexual harassment policy, policies on diversity and multiculturalism, general harassment policies, and policies on tolerance, respect, sensitivity, hate, and hate speech.

According to FIRE, the specificity of such policies is problematic because it outright designates some speech to be a violation. Harris cited the sexual harassment policies such as rule against “sexual jokes or innuendoes” as inappropriate because it bans certain types of jokes outright. Essentially, FIRE takes the position that people do not have the right to not be offended.

“More speech counters offensive speech and silencing people is not an effective way to counter speech,” said Harris.

Clarence McNeill, Vice President of Judicial Affairs, states that the University does not violate student rights because when a complaint is filed there is process to determine whether or not the complaint is legitimate. If a student files a sexual harassment complaint, McNeill and the students involved discuss the issue and attempt to resolve it.

The intent of the individual accused of harassment is also considered in the claim. However, a student found guilty of using racial slurs will be prosecuted to the fullest extent because, “Speech like that creates an offensive environment for students,” according to McNeil.

The Community Rights and Responsibilities handbook passed out every year is written by Judicial Affairs and is based on New York State law. Students and faculty members can file complaints against other students through Judicial Affairs, however, students are not able to file complaints against faculty members through Judicial Affairs.

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Schools: State University of New York – Albany