Dropping the F-Bomb

November 15, 2005

We’ve all seen pop-up ads for the University of Phoenix (UoP) that advertise that you too can earn a college degree from the comfort of your own home. UoP is a private, for-profit institution, and though it has been made famous by its online offerings, it also has a handful of brick-and-mortar campuses, including one in San Diego, Calif., where Joshua Agozino is a student. In early August, Agozino was giving a presentation in a criminal justice class when a fellow student asked him how he personally felt about crimes against children. Agozino replied, “If someone harmed my child, I would want the fucker dead.” Agozino would soon find out something about UoP that the pop-up ads don’t tell you.
A little more than a month after the above event, Agozino received an e-mail from UoP’s Campus College Chair advising him that “such language in class will not be tolerated (for any reason)” and that disciplinary action would be taken if it was repeated. Agozino was informed that he had violated UoP’s Code of Student Responsibility, which rather vaguely demands that students “[a]cknowledge and demonstrate respect for the personal and professional growth of oneself and others.” The same statement also states that UoP aims to meet “the needs of working adult students,” and that in order to acknowledge the “maturity and experience of adult learners,” the university employs a “highly interactive, collaborative learning structure” (emphasis added). Nowhere, however, does UoP guarantee free speech, freedom of expression, or other essential elements of liberty and academic freedom to its students.
To an outside observer, it is hardly surprising that, when asked, Agozino vigorously and emotionally expressed his personal views on crimes against his own children. Yet while UoP expressly acknowledges that its students are adults and that it encourages learning situations in which students are free to engage in open dialogue, it nonetheless apparently feels the need to protect its students from “indecent” speech by threatening to punish an adult student for saying a word that, frankly, is commonplace among college students.
Agozino, believing that his use of the expletive was protected by the First Amendment, voiced his disagreement with the reprimand to Regional Executive Director of Academic Affairs Ernest Price. Price’s response is worth quoting at length:

…in no instance does prevailing constitutional or statutory law permit one to use profane or otherwise indecent language in the academic setting merely for the cause of “free speech,” as you suggest. Well-settled law on the subject clearly permits reasonable restrictions on speech in circumstances where, as here, protocol and decorum so dictate for the greater public good. By analogy, this is precisely why employers may lawfully restrict workplace speech, through employee codes of conduct and like policies, for the general good of the workplace and so as not to create hostile work environments. And so it is here at the University of Phoenix. Intelligent discourse simply cannot occur in an atmosphere devoid of courtesy, professionalism, and well-regarded/time-tested standards of decency.… [P]erhaps your need for emotive expression through profane language might best be met at another institution of higher learning.

Price’s understanding of the law is defective, to put it mildly. Prevailing constitutional and statutory law does indeed cover the use of profane or indecent language. The landmark 1971 Supreme Court decision in Cohen v. California established that wearing a jacket reading “Fuck the Draft” was constitutionally protected expression even in a courthouse, a setting that is surely more reliant upon rules of decorum than any university, for-profit or not. Indecent expression is by no means beyond the scope of First Amendment protection.
But students at a private, for-profit institution like the University of Phoenix generally must understand that they have stepped beyond the reach of the First Amendment and its protections. This is not true everywhere; in Agozino’s case, California’s Leonard Law (California Education Code section 94367) guarantees that not even private universities may punish students “solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution….” This would seem to cover Agozino’s expression on the UoP’s San Diego campus. Yet such protections do not apply to private college students in most states.
Price laid all of his cards on the table when he compared the university environment to a corporate environment. Private, for-profit employers (along with a disturbingly large number of traditional academic institutions) tend to take a risk-management approach towards free speech. At such places, the principle enshrined in the First Amendment take a back seat to protecting the organization from liability. Price is willing to sacrifice free speech “for the general good of the workplace.” While such checks on the First Amendment are enforced in the business and corporate workplace, this is a poor model for universities of any type. At a college or university, expression of ideas and academic freedom should hold sway rather than the corporate calculation that trouble is to be avoided at all costs.
Students considering attending for-profit universities like UoP are well advised to research the universities’ policies on fundamental freedoms. Students won’t have to look hard to realize that such universities generally sacrifice the First Amendment in the name of “civility.” Rather than acknowledge that the classroom is a distinct environment where ideas are freely exchanged, they strive to sanitize the classroom of troublesome speech. These policies also leave little room for disagreement, as students at for-profit universities often have no recourse when they feel that their rights have been violated. UoP therefore retains the right in most cases to impose Victorian standards of acceptable speech and to punish students for violating those standards. Students are forced to either bite their tongues or, as Price suggested to Agozino, seek an education elsewhere.