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Speech Code of the Month: Jacksonville State University

By February 2, 2006

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for February 2006: Jacksonville State University.

There must be something illiberal in the water in Alabama. In October of last year, FIRE Legal Network attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Troy University in Alabama for violating the First Amendment by maintaining a restrictive speech code and censoring student artwork.

Now FIRE has learned that Jacksonville State University (JSU) in Jacksonville, Alabama, maintains one of the most illegally overbroad—not to mention simply inane—speech codes that we have ever seen. The student code of conduct at JSU provides that “No student shall threaten, offend, or degrade anyone on University owned or operated property.” Got that? No student shall offend anyone on University property. The only way for students to ensure they are in compliance with this policy is to remain in complete silence. Otherwise, how could a student possibly know whether an opinion she wants to express might offend one of the 9,000 other students at JSU, each of whom has his or her own particular sensitivities?

Last time I checked, Alabama was still part of the United States, where we have a constitutional amendment that protects our right to free speech. And that right—as the Supreme Court has stated repeatedly, and in the strongest terms—includes the right to be offensive! It includes the right to walk into a courthouse wearing a jacket that says “Fuck the Draft.” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971). It includes the right to publish a parody suggesting that a prominent religious leader lost his virginity to his own mother in an outhouse. Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988). It even includes the right to burn the American flag! Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989). These are all instances of expression that some people would find deeply offensive.

JSU’s policy flies in the face of clearly established Supreme Court precedent. It also contravenes the wishes of the Department of Education, which wrote to colleges and universities in 2003 specifically to clarify that harassment “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.” JSU is treading on very thin ice with this flagrantly unconstitutional policy. If someone were to challenge the policy in court, JSU would lose, and it would lose big. We urge JSU to choose to respect the Bill of Rights before a court publicly and embarrassingly forces it to do so.

For its stunningly shameless disregard of the First Amendment, Jacksonville State University is our February 2006 Speech Code of the Month.

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.

Schools: Jacksonville State University