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FIRE’s Will Creeley: Vague Professional Codes Threaten Student Speech Rights

By January 16, 2015

In the coming months, federal appellate courts are set to decide two important cases about the extent to which colleges can use vague, broad “professional codes” to punish student speech. FIRE’s Will Creeley has the scoop on both of the cases, and he explained why they’re worth watching in The Huffington Post yesterday.

First is Keefe v. Adams, the case of a student at Central Lakes College in Minnesota who was expelled from the nursing program for venting some frustrations about classmates on his Facebook page. Administrators labeled the post “behavior unbecoming of the profession and transgression of professional boundaries.” But as Will points out in his article, it’s hard to tell what speech would land students in trouble under that standard:

Impossibly broad, hopelessly vague prohibitions like this violate the First Amendment. How can students be sure exactly what speech does and does not “transgress” a college administrator’s understanding of “professional boundaries?” Nurses and lawyers gripe about colleagues on Facebook, just like everyone else. And even setting aside the unfairness of holding a student still learning his or her trade to a standard meant for practicing professionals, policing poorly-defined “professional boundaries” means that protected speech — like jokes made far outside of the classroom, frank conversations about a professor or peer, or complaints about a professional practice — become off-limits.

Worse still, empowering college administrators to punish students for speech that runs afoul of vague rules all but guarantees viewpoint-based censorship. An elastic ban on “behavior unbecoming of the profession” may be invoked all too easily by an administrator to punish speech that he or she simply dislikes, First Amendment be damned. Today, sarcastic Facebook jokes about whiskey or pencil sharpeners are grounds for expulsion; tomorrow, publicly criticizing the nursing program or health care reform might be.

FIRE hopes to see the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit recognize the danger in allowing universities to punish student speech under the guise of “professionalism” requirements.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit is considering Oyama v. University of Hawaii, in which a student was effectively dismissed from a teaching program for his controversial views on disabilities and age of consent laws. In FIRE’s joint amici curiae brief with the Student Press Law Center, we reminded the court that in time, professions sometimes accept ideas that were once flatly rejected, and vice versa. It is therefore critically important for students in all programs to be free to challenge contemporary beliefs.

Read the rest of Will’s excellent analysis in The Huffington Post.

Schools: University of Hawaii at Hilo