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Speech Code of the Month: Jackson State University

By on August 1, 2008

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for August 2008: Jackson State University in Mississippi.

Jackson State’s harassment policy provides, in relevant part, that:

The scope of any form of harassment includes language to physical acts which degrades, insult, taunt, or challenges another person by any means of communication, verbal, so as to provoke a violent response, communication of threat, defamation of character, use of profanity, verbal assaults, derogatory comments or remarks, sexist remarks, racists remarks or any behavior that places another member of the University community in a state of fear or anxiety.

Got that? Yeah, me neither. This policy is so jumbled that it is impossible to tell exactly what is prohibited, making the policy fatally flawed. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that to pass constitutional muster, laws must “give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly.” Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09 (1972). This policy, which is so grammatically confusing that it is virtually impossible to read, certainly fails to meet this standard. For students at Jackson State University, understanding this policy is a matter of great seriousness, since violating it can lead to disciplinary action. Faced with such confusing language, students are likely to refrain from any expression that could even possibly be prohibited, resulting in an impermissible chilling effect on campus speech.

Moreover, although the full scope of what is prohibited is impossible to discern, it is clear from the language of the policy that much of what is prohibited is protected expression. For example, the policy prohibits “language” that “degrades,” “insult[s],” or “challenges another person,” including “sexist” or “racists” [sic] remarks. If you were living under such a policy, would you dare write a sharply worded editorial opposing, say, illegal immigration or abortion rights? Someone on campus is likely to feel insulted or “challenged” (simply “challenging” someone’s views is considered bad? Yikes!), and might argue that your positions are racist or sexist. Such debates should take place wholly unfettered on college campuses, and yet if I were a student at Jackson State I would be afraid to speak out on these issues for fear of running afoul of the harassment policy.

Jackson State’s student handbook promises that “As U.S. citizens, students enjoy the same freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, and right of petition that other citizens enjoy.” But under the university’s current regulations, nothing could be farther from the truth. For this reason, Jackson State University is our August 2008 Speech Code of the Month. If you’d like to bring this shameful policy to the attention of Jackson State President Ronald Mason, he can be reached at rmason@jsums.edu. If you believe that your college or university 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. And if you would like to help fight abuses at universities nationwide, 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: Jackson State University