‘Bakersfield Californian’ Takes Look at CSU Speech Codes

January 17, 2011

The Grade, an education blog in the newspaper The Bakersfield Californian, has taken note of FIRE’s 2011 Spotlight on Speech Codes report, which rates California State University-Bakersfield (CSUB) as a yellow-light institution.

This rating leaves CSUB in a better position than most of its fellow CSU institutions: 13 of the 18 CSU schools in FIRE’s report received FIRE’s lowest, red-light rating. None received a green-light rating. The comments of CSUB spokesman Rob Meszaros, however, illuminate (however unintentionally) that CSUB still has work to do, and that misconceptions about the rights of students on campus are annoyingly persistent.

In reading over CSUB’s policies, I believe we demonstrate a good balance. […] Additionally CSUB has a designated Free Speech Area outside of the Student Union where students often hold rallies and demonstrations. 

"Balance," of course, could mean just about anything to a university administrator, given that 67% of the public schools in our report maintain policies that blatantly violate the First Amendment, yet most administrators seem to think their schools are doing just dandy. It’s also (sadly) not an unfamiliar sight for administrators to point with pride to the laughably small "free speech areas" they maintain as proof of their enlightenment. Restricting student expression to one lone speech area on CSUB’s 375-acre main campus, which serves 7,800 students, would be quite problematic. While Meszaros seems to be understating the number of venues for expression listed in CSUB’s actual policyits reservations site lists several alternative spots around campus as wellthere’s no legal or moral justification for a public institution for higher education to cordon off most of its campus against free expression.

More worryingly, Meszaros also said:

It’s important to allow people to express their opinions, while at the same time prohibiting deeply offensive speech or personal attacks that potentially lead to larger issues.

It should go without saying that "deeply offensive speech or personal attacks" are, with very narrow, extreme exceptions, protected by the Constitution and must be protected at CSUB. As the Supreme Court declared in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949), "a function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger." Prohibiting "deeply offensive" speech, then, is wildly unconstitutional.

Fortunately, though, Meszaros’ words don’t seem to echo the relatively modest restrictions on speech CSUB does have in place. These restrictions don’t come close to outright bans on "deeply offensive" speech, but are still at risk of abuse by administrators. Sometimes FIRE is asked why it is so strict when it comes to evaluating policies that inhibit free expression; Meszaros’ flawed pronouncements are the answer to that. If administrators are predisposed to ensure that "deeply offensive speech" is censored even when there are no policies prohibiting it, imagine how much worse the punishments are, and how much stronger the regime of censorship, when such policies do exist!

CSUB has a chance to make this right. In fact, it is fairly well positioned to become the CSU system’s first green-light school if it makes just a few slight changes to its policies. We’ve given CSUB a push by including it in the certified mailing we sent to the leaders of 296 public colleges and universities informing them of their free speech shortcomings. We also sent campus officials a copy of our pamphlet Correcting Common Mistakes in Campus Speech Policies, which Meszaros might do well to take a look through. Casual statements such as his, though apparently well-meaning, are too indicative of the miseducation of our college leaders on crucial issues of student rightsa miseducation that gets passed down to their students.