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Speech Code of the Month: University of Richmond

By February 5, 2014

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for February 2014: the University of Richmond.

The University of Richmond’s Standards of Student Conduct (PDF) prohibit “disruption,” which includes, among other things, “inappropriate behavior or expression.” This extraordinarily broad and vague prohibition gives the university administration carte blanche to punish, as allegedly disruptive, virtually any expression it finds inconvenient or unwelcome.

While the University of Richmond is private, it claims (PDF) to value freedom of inquiry and speech. It cannot, consistent with these values, simply prohibit any expression that another party subjectively deems inappropriate. First, most “inappropriate” expression is protected by the First Amendment (see, for example, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hustler v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), upholding First Amendment protection for a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity to his own mother in a drunken outhouse tryst—a suggestion many people would no doubt find inappropriate!).

Second, students reading this provision will have absolutely no way of knowing in advance what the university might decide to punish, since “inappropriate” is a wholly subjective term that means different things to different people. The Supreme Court stated in Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108 (1972), that laws must “give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly.” Otherwise, the law or regulation is unconstitutionally vague. With absolutely no guidance provided as to what is considered “inappropriate,” this policy does not give students such an opportunity.

If FIRE’s 15 years of experience have taught us anything, it is that excessive administrative discretion is never a good thing. Broad speech codes like this one are too often used to punish criticism of a university administration—like at Catawba Valley Community College, where a student who criticized the college’s arrangement with a debit card company was suspended for violating a policy prohibiting any “offense which, in the opinion of the administration or faculty, may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community.” Other times, they are used to punish expression that someone else simply finds offensive, such as when California Polytechnic State University charged a student with “disruption” for posting a flier, advertising an upcoming speech by a conservative African-American author, that offended other students.

As long as the University of Richmond gives itself the authority to punish any “inappropriate behavior or expression,” students’ ability to speak freely is in serious jeopardy and the credibility of the school’s avowed commitment to freedom of expression is severely undercut. For this reason, it is our February 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. You can also 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: Catawba Valley Community College University of Richmond California Polytechnic State University