Sac State’s Speech Codes

By on March 2, 2010

When I spoke recently at California State University, Sacramento (also known as Sacramento State or Sac State), the students who attended my presentation (and a screening of Evan Coyne Maloney’s Indoctrinate U) were flabbergasted to learn about Sac State’s speech codesthose policies which unduly restrict freedom of speech. As a public university bound by the First Amendment, Sac State is violating its students’ rights by maintaining these policies.

Sac State even has unconstitutional assembly policies, one of which requires "advance reservations" for "any public meeting, demonstration, rally, etc."essentially banning any spontaneous protest that arises in response to immediate events. This means that at Sac State, you’re not allowed to do what students at UC San Diego did last week, when a noose was discovered on campus overnight and students held a rally early the next morning. The advance reservations rule is unacceptably restrictive of the First Amendment rights of Sac State students. What does that "etc." mean? It refers, at least, to "use of … outdoor spaces," so you’d better get a reservation before you take out the football or Frisbee.

Another unconstitutional assembly policy defines as inherently "disruptive and/or unauthorized" any use of campus space "by a group which advocates unlawful discrimination" on the basis of various protected classes. Actually practicing unlawful discrimination is, obviously, unlawful, but  advocating for or against just about anything, lawful or unlawful, is core speech protected by the First Amendment. As a public university, Sac State may not constitutionally declare that a student is "disruptive" or "unauthorized" simply because he or she is advocating something of which the government disapproves.

A lot of students were amused when they heard that the Housing and Residential Life handbook bans behavior "that offends the dignity of anyone" or "is abusive or offensive to other residents or staff," since they told me that the jokes they tell in the dorms all the time seem to violate this unconstitutional policy. Mere offensiveness is protected by the First Amendment, even if it offends someone’s "dignity," whatever that means.

There is more, such as the ban on "vulgar" messages via e-mail or other campus computing resourcesa rule that, again, a lot of students seem to think they violate frequently. Also, the university’s sexual harassment policy fails to follow the Supreme Court’s standard for sexual harassment among student peers. The students laughed most of all when they heard that any old "sexual relations," desired or not, that had the effect of "adversely affecting any student"not to mention "sexual cartoons or posters, and sexual jokes or comments"might get counted as sexual harassment.

I encourage Sac State students to advocate for changes to these policies so as to preserve their rights on campus. I also encourage Sac State administrators to take some time to read and study FIRE’s handbook on such matters, Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies. Addressing these issues proactively will help keep the university out of court and out of public embarrassment for violations of the First Amendment.