Incoming FIRE Intern Urges Reform of Bucknell University’s Speech Codes

By on May 11, 2010

Bucknell University student Kirby Thomas, an incoming FIRE intern this summer, has penned an excellent critique of Bucknell’s speech codes in the April 2010 edition of the student publication The Counterweight. In the article, Thomas warns of the dangers of these speech codes and the wrong messages they send to Bucknell students. In light of the free speech problems that Bucknell has seen in recent years, Thomas’ article is a welcome addition to the campus discourse.

Thomas begins her critique (PDF, pp. 18-19) by noting that Bucknell has a red-light rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database:

According to FIRE’s website, red-light universities are those which have "at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech." Students should be embarrassed and concerned that Bucknell earns this distinction.

[...]

The Student Code of Conduct defines something as simple and ambiguous as "deliberately annoying … another person" as harassment. No one likes to be annoyed, but under this policy one could argue that the kid who slips his order to the bottom of the stack at the Mexican Grill is guilty of harassment.

Bucknell’s definition of sexual harassment is equally ridiculous. Among the examples of sexual harassment in the student handbook are "sexist jokes," "subtle pressure for unwanted sexual activity," and "sexual innuendos made at inappropriate times" – begging the question of what times the University considers appropriate for sexual innuendos.

Thomas astutely points out that the dangers of these policies are greater than many students at Bucknell may believe:

Since the more outrageous aspects of the harassment policies are rarely enforced, it is easy to simply laugh them off as the creation of a highly sensitive administrator with too much time on his hands. The fact that the policy exists, however, should still be troubling to students. If anything, the University’s ability to arbitrarily enforce harassment rules should be more frightening than if they had a consistently adhered to approach. Additionally, if Bucknell does ever decide to follow the rules, the consequences for students could be severe.

Well said.

Next, Thomas tackles the harms that the continued maintenance of speech codes ultimately perpetrates on a college campus such as Bucknell’s:

Universities should be places where opposing ideas meet – and sometimes clash – inside and outside the classroom. Altering this environment to one where some speech is deemed too offensive to be permitted does nothing but harm students. They miss out on potentially educational experiences and conversations, and they are unprepared for a world that will not always tiptoe around their feelings.

Therefore, Thomas ends the article by calling for reform at Bucknell:

In its disregard for liberty the University fails to acknowledge students as mature and responsible individuals, instead treating them like small children who need to be held by the hand and shielded from anything unpleasant. With a new president coming next year, Bucknellians should take advantage of an opportunity for an ally and work to convince him to make eliminating the speech code among his top priorities.

I thank Thomas for her excellent and timely piece, and I look forward to her joining FIRE as an intern this summer.

Schools: Bucknell University