Centre College, FIRE’s June 2012 Speech Code of the Month, has finally revised its policy banning any “disrespect for a college official” after FIRE wrote the college two letters urging it to better protect students’ free speech rights. Because that was Centre’s only “red light” policy (a red light policy is one that both clearly and substantially bans protected expression), the college now earns an improved, “yellow light” speech code rating from FIRE. This change is good news for students at Centre. As FIRE pointed out when we named that policy our Speech Code of the Month, students could have faced punishment under the old policy “for almost any comment or criticism that an administrator subjectively deems disrespectful.”
Of particular note, Centre’s revised policy includes language that was contained verbatim in FIRE’s second letter to the college. On January 18, 2013, FIRE wrote to Centre administrators that a suitable policy would protect students’ free speech rights and only allow punishment for “harassment, true threats, defamation, obscenity, incitement, and other unprotected speech.” Centre’s revised policy now prohibits “Disrespect (harassment, true threats, defamation, obscenity, incitement) for a College official while carrying out their official job responsibilities.”
While we are pleased to see that the Centre administration took our suggestion to heart, the continued inclusion of the word “disrespect” does leave the policy a bit too ambiguous about what exactly is prohibited, particularly since the examples provided—while certainly forms of unprotected speech—are not things one would ordinarily characterize as “disrespect.” This new language earns a yellow light rating from FIRE, reflecting our concern that because of its ambiguous wording, the policy could theoretically be used to punish protected speech. Still, this language is a significant improvement over the old policy, which explicitly defined “disrespect” to include, among other things, anything “not showing due respect.”
To date, more than half of the policies that FIRE has named Speech Code of the Month have been revised. We hope that many more colleges and universities will continue to follow suit and eliminate these dangerous restrictions on students’ expressive rights.