First Amendment on Spring Break at NAU

November 17, 2005

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recognized Northern Arizona University (NAU) as the October 2005 “winner” of its Speech Code of the Month award. Please hold your applause, though – the award is given to colleges whose speech codes run afoul of the First Amendment.

The speech code prohibits “stereotyping” and “negative comments and jokes.” It also includes a laundry list of prohibited topics that might be offensive, such as one’s veteran status or sexual orientation. Yet, the First Amendment protects all sorts of speech – including crude and offensive comments.

With its vague language and broad sweep, NAU’s policy may be silencing speech rather than encouraging it. While the university may teach its students about manners, university policies must still measure up with the First Amendment.

Of course, universities should protect students against harassment. The Supreme Court has explained that harassing speech may be limited when it is “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively bars the victim’s access to an educational opportunity or benefit.” Unfortunately, NAU’s policy isn’t so limited in its reach. By prohibiting “stereotyping” and “negative comments,” the university bans speech that, while potentially offensive, is protected under the Constitution.

NAU is a public university funded by taxpayers where all voices—not simply the politically correct—must be welcome. It is a hallmark of a free society. Having received its “distinguished” award, perhaps NAU will start over and design a speech code that truly welcomes a wide diversity of speech on campus.

Schools: Northern Arizona University