Alumni Gateway near sunset.  PHOTO BY ROGER WINSTEAD
Why NC State’s ‘Civility Statement’ Earns a ‘Green Light’

By January 3, 2014

As part of a blog series about some of the best “green light” university policies, we took a look last week at Mississippi State University’s policy on “Harassment” and examined why it is a useful model for other colleges and universities to follow in properly addressing harassment on campus. Today, we take a look at North Carolina State University’s “Civility Statement,” another exemplary green light policy.

FIRE is no stranger to witnessing universities misapply the rationale of “civility” to censor and punish expression protected by the First Amendment. While civility and civil discourse are laudable objectives, schools veer into the territory of restricting First Amendment activity when they attempt to mandate civility under pain of disciplinary action. After all, much speech that may be characterized as “uncivil” enjoys constitutional protection, and, furthermore, different people will have differing conceptions of what constitutes civil discussion and dialogue. We saw these problems come up with Harvard University’s infamous civility pledge for freshmen, as well as San Francisco State University’s unconstitutional policythat was eventually invalidated by a federal magistrate judge.

That’s partly why it’s so gratifying to read NC State’s “Civility Statement,” found in the school’s University Housing policies. Unlike the many institutions that have mandated civility in policy, in practice, or both, NC State’s policy (PDF) states, in relevant part:

The University is strongly committed to freedom of expression. The University Housing Civility Statement is not intended to interfere in any way with an individual’s academic or personal freedoms. We hope that individuals will voluntarily endorse the expectations outlined below, helping to create a residential environment that helps all students achieve their academic goals.

[...]

As a member of our residential community, students will:

  • Speak to each other in a civil manner.

[...]

  • Confront behavior or report to staff incidents of incivility and intolerance.

This policy makes abundantly clear that it is aspirational in nature, expressing the “hope that individuals will voluntarily endorse the expectations outlined below” (emphasis added). Thus, students reasonably need not fear investigation or disciplinary action if they fail to abide by the policy’s terms. This understanding is cemented by the statement that NC State “is strongly committed to freedom of expression” and that its policy “is not intended to interfere in any way with an individual’s academic or personal freedoms.” By framing its policy in these terms, the university is able to encourage students to follow those values that it deems to be important for the educational environment—without infringing upon their freedom of speech by requiring students to adopt certain values or prohibiting certain types of speech under pain of punishment.

NC State’s policy strikes this balance perfectly, making it a great model for other colleges and universities to follow. What makes it even better from our perspective is that the university promulgated the necessary changes to make the policy aspirational after FIRE, along with student Derek Spicer, expressed concernswith the former policy’s restriction of free speech. NC State revised its policy after receiving a letter from FIRE, demonstrating an admirable willingness to work with advocates and students in order to safeguard First Amendment rights on campus.

So we commend NC State for its green light Civility Statement, and we urge other schools to likewise protect student expression by following its example.

Schools: North Carolina State University – Raleigh