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Speech Code of the Month: Illinois State University

By September 11, 2012

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for September 2012: Illinois State University.

Illinois State’s Code of Student Conduct contains a provision entitled “To Be an Illinois State University Student,” which sets forth a list of “non-negotiable values” at the university, including “civility,” “an appreciation of diversity,” and “individual and social responsibility.”

The policy then provides that

These values are the hallmark of the University, and will be protected diligently. Each person has the right and ability to make decisions about his or her own conduct. Just as importantly, each person has the responsibility to accept the consequences of those decisions. When individual behavior conflicts with the values of the University, the individual must choose whether to adapt his or her behavior to meet the needs of the community or to leave the University. (Emphasis added.)

So by the plain language of this policy, if a student’s expression or behavior deviates from the university’s definition of what it means to appreciate diversity or be socially responsible, that student may be asked to leave the university. 

As a public university, Illinois State has no right to require its students to adhere to certain values as a condition of membership in the university community. If this is not immediately clear to you, just try substituting the word “patriotism” for any of the values on that list and imagine the university enforcing the policy.

In fact, that very scenario was the subject of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943), in which the Court held that a public school could not compel its students to salute or pledge allegiance to the American flag. In so holding, the Court wrote that

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.

While terms like “diversity” and “social responsibility” may seem harmless, they are still very much “matters of opinion” upon which the state cannot require individuals to agree. One can imagine, for example, a great deal of political speech (on issues such as immigration, affirmative action, and so forth) that might not be viewed as “appreciative of diversity,” but a public university like Illinois State cannot force students expressing such opinions to leave the university because they conflict with the university’s “non-negotiable values.”

Constitutionally speaking, this is not even a close call. The university can share with its students the values it deems important, and it can encourage them to agree. It cannot, however, exclude students whose otherwise lawful behavior does not accord with those values. This policy puts the university embarrassingly and dangerously at odds with the Bill of Rights, and it must be revised immediately.

For this reason, this policy is our September 2012 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 Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

Schools: Illinois State University