Another Speech Code of the Month Repealed: Kudos to Westfield State College

June 24, 2010

FIRE is pleased to announce that Westfield State College (WSC) in Massachusetts has removed the most troubling, unconstitutional provisions of its anti-discrimination policy. The policy’s prohibitions on protected speech were so broad that FIRE named it our Speech Code of the Month for February 2010.

As Samantha wrote here in February:

Westfield’s Student Handbook prohibits “discrimination,” which it defines to include “making disparaging remarks that insult or stigmatize a student’s cultural background or race” as well as “making insensitive remarks that reflect a student’s disability.” Westfield State College is a public university, bound to protect its students’ First Amendment right to free speech. The college recognizes this fact elsewhere in its policies, clearly stating that “Westfield State College recognizes that the student, as an adult member of society and a citizen of the United States of America, is entitled to respect and consideration and has the right to the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly and association.” The non-discrimination policy, however, completely ignores this obligation, explicitly prohibiting large amounts of protected speech.

FIRE’s June 7 letter to WSC President Evan Dobelle pointed out that however much a public college might like to eliminate such remarks from its campus, it may not do so by threatening students with charges of discrimination. We pointed out that the policy’s restrictions threaten core political speech as well as parody, satire, and other forms of edgy humor that derive their effectiveness from blasting away the walls of political correctness erected by WSC’s policy. Parody and satire of this sort unquestionably enjoy the protection of the First Amendment.

WSC, fortunately, was quick to act, notifying FIRE in a June 17 letter that it had removed the policy’s most troubling provisions. Carlton Pickron, WSC’s Dean for Diversity and Affirmative Action, wrote:

I have made enquiries about the matter and, on the basis of those, now understand that the provisions in question are susceptible of being interpreted and applied to speech that enjoys Constitutional protections. I have therefore instructed the responsible persons at the college to remove those provisions from both the on-line and hard-copy versions of the student handbook. The required changes in the handbook are being made as I write.

Pickron was as good as his wordthose provisions are no longer listed on WSC’s website.

FIRE appreciates Westfield State College’s forthrightness in correcting its error. We now will reevaluate WSC’s red-light rating, which signifies that a school has at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech. If WSC earns a yellow light as a result of its revisions, it will need to make only a few more changes to policies that still threaten speech, in order to attain a green-light rating. WSC would then join a small but noble list of schools that have achieved FIRE’s most favorable policy rating. FIRE would be pleased to keep working with WSC to fully safeguard free speech on campus while protecting students against harassment and discrimination.