Speech Codes of the Year: 2008

By on December 29, 2008

As Torch readers know, each month FIRE singles out a particularly reprehensible speech code for our Speech Code of the Month award. While all twelve Speech Codes of the Month in 2008 flagrantly violated students’ right to free expression, three were so egregious that they deserve special mention as 2008′s Speech Codes of the Year.

  • University of the Pacific: The university’s policy on Harassment, Coercion, and Discrimination prohibits any conduct "that undermines the emotional, physical, or ethical integrity of any community member," including any expression, "intentional or unintentional," that "has the effect of demeaning, ridiculing, defaming, stigmatizing, intimidating, slandering or impeding the work or movement of a person or persons or conduct that supports or parodies the oppression of others." Examples of explicitly prohibited expression include "insults," "jokes," "teasing," and "derogatory comments." As long as this policy is in force, no controversial expression is safe from censorship at the University of the Pacific.
  • Jackson State University: Jackson State’s incomprehensible harassment policy defines harassment as "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, racist remarks or any behavior that places another member of the University community in a state of fear or anxiety." This policy not only forbids a great deal of constitutionally protected expression (including "sexist remarks" and "use of profanity"), but the grammar is also so poor that its full scope is impossible to determine, rendering it impermissibly vague as well.
  • Texas Southern University: The university’s Student Code of Conduct prohibits "intentional mental or physical harm," which it defines as "[k]nowingly or recklessly causing or attempting to cause by acts and/or threats, emotional, mental, physical or verbal harm to another person… This includes intimidation, emotional force, embarrassing, degrading or damaging information, assumptions, implications, remarks, or fear for one’s safety." Like Jackson State’s harassment policy, this policy is both overbroad (in that it bans a lot of protected expression, such as the communication of "embarrassing information") and vague (in that it prohibits things that escape definition, such as causing "emotional harm" or using "emotional force.")

Since FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month became a regular feature in June 2005, twelve universities have fully revised the policies that earned them the dubious distinction. It is our hope that in 2008, more universitiesincluding those named herewill make the changes necessary to give their students the freedom they deserve. Happy holidays, and look for 2009′s first Speech Code of the Month in January!