Rights in the News: Third Circuit Gets it on Free Speech, Mississippi Doesn’t

By August 27, 2010

A pity that the Third Circuit’s jurisdiction doesn’t extend to the Magnolia State, given the lessons that Mississippi’s public collegesstarting with Hinds Community Collegecould stand to learn about the First Amendment. As Jaclyn noted earlier in the week, interest in free speech at Mississippi colleges has branched out from Isaac Rosenbloom’s case at HCC to the state’s other universities, and the picture is equally dim there. The Bolivar Commercial of Cleveland, Mississippi, was the latest to highlight this issue, taking its cue from Elizabeth Crisp’s recent Clarion-Ledger article on the same subject. (That article, as Jaclyn also noted, has been making the rounds nationally).

Contrast that unflattering picture with the wonderful news out of the Third Circuit, which invalidated yet another university speech code in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, two years after its landmark ruling in DeJohn v. Temple University. Will Creeley, FIRE’s Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, has written an authoritative account on the ruling and its implications for free speech at the legal blog The Legal Satyricon, which I encourage Torch readers to check out.

Today, the Pope Center’s Jay Schalin does Davidson College the honor of highlighting its amusingly restrictive speech code in an article about Davidson College’s outgoing president, Thomas W. Ross, who will be the University of North Carolina system’s next president:

One situation at Davidson that might reveal some of Ross’s tendencies as a leader is the school’s speech code. Before Ross arrived, the free speech watchdog group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) declared Davidson’s code to have a "chilling effect" on students right to express themselves freely. The code prohibits "comments or inquiries about dating," "jokes," "teasing, dismissive comments," and "making [offensive] facial expressions."

According to FIRE staff members, FIRE contacted Ross’s predecessor about the speech code, recommending that it be made less restrictive. While FIRE never contacted Ross directly, the organization has frequently publicized the policy as one of the most restrictive in the country. Yet despite FIRE’s pressure, the speech code remains intact after Ross’s three years in charge. 

Davidson’s policy also prohibits the use of "patronizing remarks" such as "referring to an adult as ‘girl,’ ‘boy,’ ‘hunk,’ ‘doll,’ ‘honey,’" or "sweetie." Do people still use all these terms in North Carolina, and are they really anything like true sexual harassment?

Finally, as if we needed another reminder that summer is ending, the University of Idaho Argonaut catches up with UI student Alex Rowson, whom FIRE successfully defended in a free speech case earlier this year. In spite of his recent difficulties with the UI administration, Rowson looks forward to starting the school year on a high note, as do we.