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Speech Code of the Month: Bates College

By June 9, 2014

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for June 2014: Bates College.

Bates, which is located in Lewiston, Maine, prohibits “bias incidents,” which it defines as follows:

A bias incident is any event of intolerance or prejudice, not involving violence or other criminal conduct, intended to threaten, offend or intimidate another because of the other’s race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age or physical or mental disability. Examples of bias incidents include hate speech, gay bashing, racist epithets, religious slurs, sexist jokes or cartoons, hate mail, offensive graffiti, or disparaging remarks on social media sites. Such incidents create a socially divisive atmosphere for members of the community targeted and negatively affect the campus climate.

While probably well-intentioned, this policy seriously threatens campus discourse on important topics such as race, religion, and gender by subjecting core political expression to investigation and possible punishment simply because it offends another person.

The term “hate speech,” for example, is often thrown around in connection with controversial or provocative political and social commentary. For instance, at the University of Chicago, some students are currently calling on the university to ban “hate speech” following a campus seminar featuring columnist and gay rights activist Dan Savage. As my colleague Ari Cohn explained in a post here on The Torch last week:

During the seminar, Savage spoke about the reclamation of slurs and their empowering potential, using the word “tranny” as an example. Speaking of her personal experience with the word, [panel moderator Ana Marie] Cox noted that she “used to make jokes about trannies.”

According to the students’ petition to prohibit hate speech, “[t]he usage of this slur constitutes hate speech, which is frankly unacceptable.” Colleges, the students claim, “have a responsibility to stop hate speech in order to maintain a safe and accessible space for students where respectful open discourse can actually occur.”

But open and honest discussion of controversial issues often requires controversial speech. Savage and Cox were discussing a cultural phenomenon involving groups’ reappropriation of slurs. How is something like this ever supposed to occur if a person cannot even speak the disfavored word in question?

What’s more, as Ari explained last week, “hate speech” is a broad, amorphous, and inherently subjective categorization:

“Hate speech” is a wholly subjective and undefinable term most often used as justification for prohibiting whatever speech any individual listener subjectively finds noxious or offensive. Students certainly have a right to be safe from certain narrow and specific categories of speech such as true threats and actionable harassment—but there is no right to be safe from ideas or words that merely offend, no matter how deeply.

In other words, there are important reasons why there’s no “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment.

Similarly, many “jokes or cartoons” intended as political or social satire or commentary might be deemed “sexist” by others, leaving them vulnerable to punishment at Bates. Likewise, “disparaging remarks on social media sites” could encompass a wide range of harsh criticisms, particularly in light of the broad range of categories protected by Bates’ policy. Would calling someone a “Jesus freak” in the context of a heated debate over, say, gay marriage be a “religious slur” punishable under Bates’ policy? What about calling someone “crazy” or an “idiot”—those could be deemed “disparaging remarks” on the basis of “mental disability.”

Whether or not Bates would actually punish these particular instances of speech, students reading this broad policy are likely to play it safe and keep their mouths shut, leading to an unacceptable chilling effect on free speech at a college that claims that “open discussion of a full range of ideas lie[s] at the heart of the College’s mission as an institution of higher learning.”

For these reasons, Bates College is our June 2014 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Schools: Bates College