At George Mason, Student Editors Decry School’s Speech Code

September 26, 2007

The editors of The Broadside, George Mason University’s student newspaper, have sharp words for their school’s unconstitutional speech code in an editorial published in yesterday’s edition.

The Broadside editors write:

Mason is a public university; it has no business enforcing rules that restrict first amendment speech. Its only defense is that these policies, in some intangible way, enforce diversity. This is pure fallacy. When Mason students fear to say what they believe, the result is deadly to campus life and student thought. True diversity on campus can only stem from one thing, a diversity of thought. Mason must dissolve these unconstitutional policies and return first amendment rights to the student body.

We couldn’t agree more—because when it comes to speech codes, Mason students have plenty to protest.

For example, Mason’s Housing Policy includes the following provision:

The [Office of Housing and Residence Life] will not tolerate any form of bigotry, harassment, intimidation or threat, whether verbal, written, psychological, direct, or implied. This includes written statements and drawings/suggestions on message boards, voice messages, and electronic communications.

It should be readily apparent that this restriction is both ridiculously overbroad and hopelessly vague. It’s overbroad because in addition to outlawing unprotected speech like true threats, it has the potential to restrict a vast swath of speech protected by the First Amendment. For example, while bigoted speech may be socially unacceptable, Mason has no authority under the First Amendment to restrict it. Indeed, even if the school could legitimately ban bigoted speech, Mason’s policy is vague because it makes no attempt to define what speech the school considers “bigoted” in the first place, leaving students to guess at what speech is and is not prohibited. Finally, the restrictions concerning “psychological, direct or implied” speech render this particular code laughably unconstitutional: How can a public university actually purport to forbid, say, speech that “implied” “bigotry”? Obviously, it can’t: granting university officials the power to deem student speech guilty of “implying bigotry” is completely unconstitutional.

And we won’t even get into Mason’s prohibition of “pranks,” which it defines as “any behavior or action that occurs for amusement,” sternly warning that “oftentimes what is amusement for one is physical, financial, or emotionally harmful to another” and violators will be subject to discipline. So much for telling that political joke, huh?

Restrictive policies like these are the reason why George Mason University earns a red light on Spotlight, FIRE’s database of school speech codes, and we at FIRE are happy to see The Broadside give Mason’s code the negative attention it so richly deserves.

Incidentally, students at Mason and other universities looking to raise awareness of their school’s policies are encouraged to check out FIRE’s new Spotlight widgets. They’re easily added to MySpace pages or blogs and are a terrific way to highlight restrictions on free speech on your campus.

Schools:  George Mason University