Editorial: College Speech Crackdowns

October 8, 2015

By Las Vegas Review at Las Vegas Review-Journal

American universities are notoriously hostile to free speech — even student speech that occurs off campus. A recent court ruling in Kansas marked an important victory for student rights, but the decision doesn’t go far enough to rein in unconstitutional policies that infringe on core student freedoms.

Last month, the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court ruling that overturned the expulsion of University of Kansas student Navid Yeasin for off-campus conduct. Mr. Yeasin was a cad in dealing with an ex-girlfriend, posting vile tweets and being a jerk during an off-campus run-in with her over summer break. But arguing and saying mean things via social media is clearly free speech — as is a lot of expression that universities try to ban because it might hurt someone’s feelings. That a university could claim authority to punish noncriminal off-campus behavior boggles the mind.

Nevertheless, Kansas expelled Mr. Yeasin, arguing it was obligated to regulate off-campus behavior under federal anti-discrimination laws. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights advises institutions to pursue action if a “student files a complaint with the school, regardless of where the conduct occurred.” So the university found Mr. Yeasin guilty of sexual harassment and kicked him out of school.

Kansas State University, in a brief opposed to Kansas’ position, pointed out that such an interpretation turns schools into “de facto police departments with worldwide jurisdiction.” The Student Press Law Center and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education also filed briefs citing First Amendment concerns with Kansas’ action against Mr. Yeasin. We’re glad they prevailed, with the court noting that a university is “not an agency of law enforcement.”

However, the court ruled as it did because Kansas’ code of conduct clearly did not cover off-campus behavior at the time of Mr. Yeasin’s behavior. Since then, as reported by FIRE, the school has rewritten its code of conduct to extend its disciplinary jurisdiction off campus. Talk about not learning a lesson. UNLV’s student code of conduct has a similar provision.

The culture of political correctness that prevails at most universities is not easily derailed. Schools should follow the lead of the University of Chicago and Purdue University in abolishing Big Brother-type regulation of expression and instead embracing free speech — and helping students learn that there is no right to never be offended.

Schools: Kansas State University University of Chicago University of Kansas Purdue University