Some people occasionally ask FIRE why we are so adamant that unconstitutional speech codes are a bad idea. FIRE Co-founder and Chairman Harvey Silverglate has a great essay on this subject in today’s Minding the Campus, in which he discusses “How Corrupted Language Moved from Campus to the Real World.” Harvey links the disregard for clarity in policy and the subsequent abuse of power that is rife on campus to the increasing abuse of federal laws to make crimes out of actions that may “feel” wrong but are actually not criminal.
FIRE faces this problem frequently when we fight colleges and universities that are pressured to (or, too often, cheerfully agree to) bend their policies to enable them to punish expression or practices that they simply “feel” are wrong. A great example of this is what has been happening over the weekend at the University of California San Diego (UCSD), where administrators are under immense pressure to find some way, any way, to justify the shutdown of all student publications and the punishment of the organizers and attendees of a racially-charged, off-campus “Compton Cookout” party. UCSD’s policies simply don’t support such punishment, and if they did, it would be prohibited by the First Amendment anyway. But that hasn’t stopped everyone from legislators to local pressure groups from trying to ensure that those involved in the party get punished for something. A little thing called the law is not to be allowed to stand in the way.
If you’re interested on how this mentality affects both college campuses and the federal government, Harvey’s essay is well worth a read.