A Campus Freedom Network member alerted us to a piece of legislation soundly defeated 20–2 in the student senate at Illinois Institute of Technology. It’s worth noting because it’s an example of the ridiculous regulations that are actually codified on many campuses. The proposed legislation read:
Whereas Illinois Institute of Technology residence halls are a home for all students living on campus and,
Whereas students should feel comfortable and accepted in their homes no matter their beliefs and opinions on political issues and,
Whereas politically charged advertisements may threaten this level of comfort and feeling of home students should enjoy, therefore be it resolved, that the Illinois Institute of Technology Student Senate of Student Government Association urges the Office of the Dean of Students to add an additional point to the IIT Posting Policy which states,
“No posting on the opinions of students or groups of students on controversial political issue shall be allowed inside the residence halls.”
and be it further resolved, that the IIT Posting Policy clearly define political issues as,
“Dialectical issues including, but not limited to abortion, right to marry, evolution and issues of race and religion.”
and be it further resolved, that determining these issues will be at the discretion of the student life and residence life staff who approve postings.
and be it further resolved, that this restriction will not apply to student events and activities, rather solely informational campaigns.
The legislation would prioritize an attempt to make students feel “comfortable and accepted” over their ability to express themselves and learn from interactions with people of differing ideas. Banning any “controversial” speech on “political issues” strikes at the very core speech protected under the First Amendment. Non-controversial speech doesn’t require protection; controversial speech—because it causes dissension and even anger—needs the protection of the First Amendment. As the Supreme Court wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago (1949), speech “may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” To pass a regulation against speech because it is controversial misses the point. Such speech should be protected precisely because it is controversial and, yes, may make students uncomfortable.
“Political issues” such as “abortion, right to marry, evolution and issues of race and religion” are controversial largely because they are the most relevant to contemporary political and social struggles. It would be ridiculous to require students to refrain from posting about such pertinent issues involving contemporary theories in biology, philosophy, constitutional law, and matters of opinion just because bringing up such issues may cause some students discomfort.
The university has long been regarded as the “marketplace of ideas,” and residence halls have traditionally served as a place where students are able to interact with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. Posting about such issues inside residence halls is a common way of reaching students with ideas precisely because that is where they live and will see the postings.
Further, allowing speech only at the “discretion of the student life and residence life staff” is itself problematic. To be free, speech cannot be restricted at administrative whim. Rules governing speech must be clear and viewpoint neutral.
IIT’s student senate is to be commended for voting this ill-advised policy down. It’s too bad that the University of Utah, which, until FIRE intervened, had a posting policy forbidding anything “that is deemed to be racist, sexist, indecent, scandalous, illegal, inciting, advertise alcohol or illegal substances, or in any way oppressive in nature,” or Barnard College, where George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” are banned from any posted information, didn’t make the same choice.