University of Delaware Retreats on Oppressive Speech Code

By on April 14, 2008

The University of Delaware has revised a speech code that used to classify “[a]ny instance that is perceived by those involved as being racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, homophobic, or otherwise oppressive” as an emergency equal to fire, suicide attempts, and alcohol overdose. This code was blatantly unconstitutional and about as absurd as you can get in 20 words or less, for these reasons:

  • This language is overbroad because “oppressive” is not a clear term on which to base judgments of one’s language or actions.
  • “Perceived by those involved” is an improper, unconstitutional standard for determining whether a statement or action truly is a violation.
  • Racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, and homophobic language, however offensive it may seem to many persons, in itself is protected by the First Amendment.
  • Classifying “sexist” occurrences on the same level as rape, requiring immediate notification on the level of fires, suicide attempts, alcohol overdose, drug busts, and so on, is ludicrous.
  • Classifying so-called oppressive speech as more serious than actual fights and minor thefts is also ludicrous.

The new language now refers only to “[s]ignificant bias related acts that have the potential to create a significant disturbance to the community.” That’s a start, I guess. But such things are still rated at the highest emergency level, requiring immediate notification of the authorities “day or night.” Moreover, who is to decide what counts as significant potential for disturbance? Resident Assistants, students themselves, are still the first judges of behavior under this policy. And does anyone believe that the school’s Office of Residence Life will train RAs to tolerate (as they constitutionally must) allegedly offensive or oppressive speech, reserving this provision for truly dire actions? Given ResLife’s record thus far, nobody should.

Meanwhile, students at the University of Delaware need to be aware that they could be expelled for “bias-motivated” behavior. The university still maintains a zero-tolerance policy against “hate.” In the words of former president David P. Roselle: “Those who engage in acts of hatred and bias-motivated threats and behavior will be confronted, prosecuted and expelled from our community.”

I call on President Harker to restore the constitutional rights of students at the University of Delaware by immediately repealing his predecessor’s zero-tolerance policy against hate speech.

Schools: University of Delaware