Wesleyan Columnist Decries School’s Speech Code

By on September 30, 2008

Writing for The Wesleyan Argus, columnist Mytheos Holt has this to say about Wesleyan University’s speech code:

The Orwellian name of this document is not accidentalit is nothing less than a document regulating what students can and cannot say without serious consequences, and if you actually take the time to read the document, you find that we can say very little indeed. For instance, the passage detailing what "Discriminatory Harassment" is defines its subject as follows:

"Discriminatory harassment may include any action or statement intended to insult, stigmatize, or degrade an individual or group on the basis of [...] race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, age, disability, national or ethnic origin, veteran status, or any other basis protected by local, state or federal law in any activity administered by the University."

Now, depending on who sits on the SJB [Student Judicial Board], these words could mean practically anything and we’d have no concrete legal way of constraining them from deciding that one remark is hate speech one year and then is not hate speech the following year. In fact, it’s precisely because of passages like this that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Wesleyan a speech code rating of Red, the worst rating possible, according to its website www.thefire.org. Mind you, nobody ever bothers to contest this sort of abusive and vague language …

Indeed, Wesleyan’s policies contain several passages that clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.

Holt’s column responds to a recent article in the Argus concerning the spike in "Failure to Comply" violations by students at Wesleyan. According to Associate Director of Student Life Scott Backer, one of the main reasons for this spike is a new SJB policy that requires students to reply to initial citation notifications within two business days. Backer told the Argus that most Failure to Comply cases "were the result of students who did not respond to requests to schedule meetings to follow up with Area Coordinators regarding incidents that were documented by a University official."

I suppose this new policy could go either way in terms of due process. On the one hand, the policy helps students get a hearing of some sort more quickly than in the past. Backer told the Argus that it used to take too long for cases to be heard. If all that a student needs to do is reply and schedule a meeting, this looks like a positive step. On the other hand, if students are being asked to have their whole defense ready in such a short time, this seems like too short a period for more complex cases.

But Holt nails the real issue here when he focuses on Wesleyan’s speech code. Speech is less free at Wesleyan than at, say, Central Connecticut State University ten miles away, which has gone on record in defense of freedom of speech. Wesleyan promises students via its Student Handbook that "Students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately"—but in its harassment policy Wesleyan limits this freedom to those opinions it deems acceptable. Students should not have to give up their speech rights when they step off the public sidewalk onto Wesleyan’s campus.

Schools: Wesleyan University