Penn State’s Student Newspaper Advocates Policy Revision for Free Speech

By November 28, 2007

Today’s edition of Penn State’s Daily Collegian features a compelling staff editorial titled “PSU should revise free speech policy.” The editorial focuses on Penn State’s idea, in the “Penn State Principles,” that all Penn State members, simply by being a part of the community, pledge not to “engage in any behaviors that compromise or demean the dignity of individuals or groups, including intimidation, stalking, harassment, discrimination, taunting, ridiculing, insulting, or acts of violence.” (Emphasis added.) The editorial rightly responds:

No one wants to be demeaned or intimidated in their learning environment, but should making fun your friends’ bad haircuts or unfortunate choices of rain boots, some examples of “taunting” and “ridiculing,” really be included in behaviors “that demean the dignity of individuals or groups?”

Speech is not harassment simply because it offends someone. Harassment is extreme behavior, behavior so repeated and severe that its victim is effectively denied an education.

Good-natured ribbing has a historic home on college campuses and within the college-age bracket, and while this policy is not referring to friendly jabs, the language is too vague and broad.

As I wrote two weeks ago, the “Penn State Principles” presume to know “the values that our students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni possess” and expect that all members of the Penn State community are “endorsing these common principles.”

The “Penn State Principles” constitute a central reason why Penn State earned its “red light” rating for the restriction of free speech. Indeed, as Penn State spokesman Geoff Rushton said, the red light rating draws “attention,” and it is attention that Penn State deserves for its unduly restrictive policies.

Rushton also said that FIRE was taking the policy out of context—again, one can view the entire statement here. Now that we’re talking about the whole document, I actually think it’s worse to couch the policy in the first person, as “I will” and “I will not,” as though Penn State really knows that everyone on the campus has fully agreed with these pledges and with “common” principles and values. Penn State is not alone, as I have noted in general, in having administrators or statements that claim to speak for the whole campus community, in violation of the principle of promoting diverse views on campus.

In any case, kudos to the Daily Collegian for defending free speech at Penn State.

Schools: Pennsylvania State University – University Park