The Public Debates the Hinds Swearing Case

By August 3, 2010

Isaac Rosenbloom was interviewed yesterday afternoon for the evening news on WAPT 16, the ABC affiliate in Jackson, Mississippi. Rosenbloom was barred from one of his classes at Hinds Community College (HCC) and denied financial aid after a professor confronted him for using the “F” word after class. After FIRE intervened, this decision was reversed, and Rosenbloom is again able to pursue his studies, but Hinds has not yet abandoned its unconstitutional policy against swearing anywhere on campus at any time.

The case has drawn a great deal of debate, however. An August 1 article in the Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.) summarized Rosenbloom’s case and quoted Adam, who said, “It’s only a matter of time before another student decides to sue over this.” Yet, the article generated over 200 comments from readers, many of which were critical of Rosenbloom’s speech. The comments of “toddler1″ are representative:

[Y]ou did not only break a “social more” when you spoke, you broke the published rules of the school … I hope you do a better job of following rules of treatment on the job than you did at Hinds. Or only those rules you agree with?

The problem with this point of view, however, is that the rules themselves are unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has affirmed time and again that the Constitution protects an individual’s right to free speech at public universities outside of class, and this protection certainly includes profanity. In Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972), the court affirmed that “the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than within the community of American schools.” No free speech policy can force students to check their First Amendment rights at the campus gate.

Commenter “sec53″ argues that it is necessary to discipline students for foul language because such language sometimes leads to violence:

Violence in the classroom has become the normbegins with words and ends with injury or loss of life. Instructors cannot afford to not reactstudents cannot afford for the instructor to not react.

If a student is a potential safety threat simply because he said a curse word, then anybody who has ever uttered an expletive is also a potential threat. In contrast to the opinion of “sec53,” the Supreme Court has established a very narrow definition of fighting words, or words that constitute safety threats because they would lead to immediate violence in the immediate context. In Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 20 (1971), the majority stated that fighting words are “those personally abusive epithets which, when addressed to the ordinary citizen, are, as a matter of common knowledge, inherently likely to provoke violent reaction.” Rosenbloom’s words fall far short of meeting that criterion. To learn more about the fighting words doctrine, check out our discussions here, herehere (9th and 10th paragraphs), and here (pages 28-37).

Another reader, ironically named “Son-of-Liberty,” claims:

The First Amendment was intended to protect political speech. The Framers did not intend the First Amendment to extend to profanity, especially when it violated the rights of another who did not want to hear such trash.

Yes, political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, but its protections certainly did not end there. The Founders would likely have found it absurd to curtail speech simply because it offended others because almost all forms of speech offend somebody in some way. The Supreme Court has validated this interpretation time and again. For example, in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1 (1949), the Supreme Court invalidated the conviction of a preacher who insulted various political and ethnic groups in a speech. The majority wrote, “[The] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”

Fortunately, many readers supported Rosenbloom’s right to free speech. Commenter “gunslinger38847,” who identifies himself as a veteran, laments the hypocrisy and political correctness of several commentators:

The political correctness, and general lack of rights in this country is making me wonder why I took a bullet for you people. I am a Vet. So, while you exercise your rights, do not forget that other people have them too.

“78Bandit” understands that as an extension of the government, Hinds Community College cannot abridge a student’s constitutional rights. He also demonstrates the ludicrous practical implications of a First Amendment exemption for profanity:

Stump your toe and say “s**t while you are campaigning against the local mayor?  Get off the stage now and head directly to the police station.

While scores of people have expressed their views on this case, the HCC administration has stayed remarkably quiet. Hinds spokeswoman Cathy Hayden said, “We don’t comment on student discipline issues” on Friday, and the Clarion-Ledger was unable to reach the professor. Perhaps they’re too ashamed of their shabby treatment of Rosenbloom and their even shabbier speech policy to talk about it.

Schools: Hinds Community College Cases: Hinds Community College: Student Barred from Class