FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for January 2009: University at Buffalo (also known as SUNY Buffalo). According to the Statement of Civility in the university’s Guide to Residence Hall Living,
Students are expected to act with civility. To be civil means to be courteous and polite or, simply put, to be mannerly. Acts of incivility — whether verbal, written, or physical — will not be tolerated by the Residential Life community.
This policy impermissibly restricts students’ right to freely express themselves in the residence halls, which are the closest thing students have to their own homes while attending college. Learning to live with and engage other people outside of one’s own family is often a vital part of the college experience, and college dormitories should be a place where lively debate occurs as students challenge one another’s pre-existing ideas and conceptions. UB’s policy, with its Victorian-era requirement of “mannerly” conduct and expression at all times, instead requires students to walk on eggshells around one another to avoid being guilty of “incivility.”
Some may argue that requiring “civility” or “mannerly” conduct is inconsequential or even appropriate. In finding San Francisco State University’s civility policy unconstitutional, however, California federal judge Wayne Brazil eloquently rebutted that argument:
Speakers, especially speakers on significant or controversial issues, often want their audience to understand how passionately they feel about their subject or message. For many speakers on religious or political subjects, for example, having their audience perceive and understand their passion, their intensity of feeling, can be the single most important aspect of an expressive act. And for many people, what matters most about a particular instance of communication is whether it inspires emotions in the audience, i.e., whether it has the emotional power to move the audience to action or to a different level of interest in or commitment to an idea or cause. For such people, the effectiveness of communication is measured by its emotional impact, by the intensity of the resonance it creates.
How is all this relevant to our review of the University’s civility requirement? Civility connotes calmness, control, and deference or responsiveness to the circumstances, ideas, and feelings of others. [...] Given these common understandings, a regulation that mandates civility easily could be understood as permitting only those forms of interaction that produce as little friction as possible, forms that are thoroughly lubricated by restraint, moderation, respect, social convention, and reason. The First Amendment difficulty with this kind of mandate should be obvious: the requirement “to be civil to one another” and the directive to eschew behaviors that are not consistent with “good citizenship” reasonably can be understood as prohibiting the kind of communication that it is necessary to use to convey the full emotional power with which a speaker embraces her ideas or the intensity and richness of the feelings that attach her to her cause. Similarly, mandating civility could deprive speakers of the tools they most need to connect emotionally with their audience, to move their audience to share their passion.
In sum, there is a substantial risk that the civility requirement will inhibit or deter use of the forms and means of communication that, to many speakers in circumstances of the greatest First Amendment sensitivity, will be the most valued and the most effective.
A university may certainly require that student conduct in the residence halls not interfere with other residents’ ability to sleep or study. But to require that all interaction be “courteous,” “polite,” and “mannerly” is to stifle debate in one of the places that students interact most freely and naturally—the place where they live. For this reason, University at Buffalo’s Statement of Civility is our January 2009 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. And if you would like to help fight abuses at universities nationwide, add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog, website, or Facebook profile and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.