If You Can’t Say Something Nice…?

January 18, 2007

Recently on Phi Beta Cons, FIRE’s friend David French addressed the attempts to suppress free speech on campus in the name of civility. In part, David wrote:

[S]ubjective experience is not the stuff of legal structures, and rights of free speech are too precious to place at the mercy of the offended. When it comes to the venom that so often flows on campus, the real problem is not the absence of laws that punish subjectively-perceived rudeness; the problem is a coarse and vitriolic culture that too often celebrates abuse and dismisses the most basic manners as “coddling” your ideological enemies.

Though it may seem obvious that universities should not regulate otherwise protected speech based on its potential to offend others, FIRE sees case after case where students are disciplined for that exact reason.

For example, take a look at the “Principles for Ensuring Equity, Civility and Respect for All” at Johns Hopkins University, which say that “rude, disrespectful behavior is unwelcome and will not be tolerated.” We always say the best way to combat expression one doesn’t like is through more expression, not attempted censorship. The old adage “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” may be fine for a garden party, but it is not an appropriate approach on a university campus that should be truly encouraging challenging discourse on a wide range of topics.

It is true that the atmosphere on today’s typical campus may be coarse at times, and it is also true that students may say things that someone, somewhere might find offensive. But one more fact remains: the use of a speech code like the one at Hopkins, which is only enforceable by applying subjective standards, is what should not be tolerated—not expressions some may find rude or disrespectful.

Schools:  Johns Hopkins University