FIRE’s Azhar Majeed Analyzes Central Michigan University’s Speech Codes

October 7, 2014

Thirteen years ago, Central Michigan University (CMU) officials forced students to take down posters that could be perceived as offensive to other students, even images of the American flag. Yesterday, the CMU Insider spoke to Azhar Majeed, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Education Program, to ask: Do CMU policies still violate students’ free speech rights today?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes.

Like too many other colleges and universities, CMU is a “red light” school, meaning at least one of its policies clearly and substantially restricts constitutionally protected speech. CMU earns a red light rating in part for its Computing and Network Resources Policy. CMU General Counsel Manuel Rupe chose not to comment on the policy in speaking with the Insider, but Azhar argued that the policy’s restriction on “foul or obscene language” is unconstitutionally broad:

“’Foul or obscene language’ could mean everything from profanity to just something you say that somebody else finds offensive,” Majeed said.

He said the clause banning “obnoxious or inappropriate announcements” is troublesome, as well.

“I find myself wondering who decides what is obnoxious or inappropriate speech,” Majeed said.

Without further clarifications, he said administrators might subject speech to arbitrary censorship.

Majeed said the policy could be found unconstitutional if pursued in court.

CMU also earns a red light rating for its policy on “bias incidents.” Azhar warned the Insider that the policy, despite perhaps being written with good intentions, could chill controversial speech.

Majeed warned the policy might stifle polarizing or radical speech, as it is supposed to report “expressions of hate or hostility.”

“If students are reported for any time they engage in any speech which somebody else deems to be hateful or to contain hostility, you’re going to be cutting out a lot of social and political commentary on issues that might be divisive or people disagree about,” Majeed said.

CMU’s Code of Student Rights, Responsibilities and Disciplinary Procedures, which earns a “yellow light” rating from FIRE, is also troubling. While Rupe simply brushes off the idea that the policy is problematic, Azhar cautions:

“It doesn’t really define what ‘bullying’ means,” Majeed said. “Could that mean very strongly stated or passionate speech or even verbally abusive speech? Sure, but much speech that falls under those categories is still protected by the First Amendment.”

Majeed said the First Amendment does not protect harassment as properly defined and institutions such as CMU have moral and legal obligations to prohibit such activity. However, he said speech in an email or text message that offends another person is not harassment but could be found as such by the university.

Although not enough has changed since CMU violated its students’ rights 13 years ago, FIRE is still optimistic:

In comparison to the 11 other schools FIRE surveyed in Michigan, CMU is tied for the second fewest potential violations, standing at three.

“When I say it only has three speech code violations, that to me is pretty doable in terms of getting those policies fixed,” Majeed said. “It’s a lot easier than many other universities that may have seven or more codes.”

Read the rest of the story here.


Schools:  Central Michigan University

Cases:  Central Michigan University: Abridgement of Freedom to Display Patriotic Symbols