George Mason University and the Perpetual Problem of Speech Codes

April 23, 2015

By John K. Wilson at The Academe Blog

George Mason University (GMU) has gotten a lot of attention this week, with FIRE declaring that GMU “has eliminated all of its speech codes, earning the highest, ‘green light’ rating from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.”

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. GMU continues to have a Student Code of Conduct that’s flawed in many ways and severely restricts student freedoms.

Now, it’s understandable that FIRE would issue this statement, because GMU fixed some of the most egregious parts of their speech code under pressure from FIRE, and FIRE wants to reward them for their cooperation. The AAUP sometimes faces a similar dilemma when removing a college from its censure list, even though its improved policies are still imperfect.

But I think it’s important to point out just a few of the flaws that I found in looking atGMU’s code of conduct:

  1. “Hazing is a broad term that encompasses a multitude of actions or activities. The term hazing refers to any actions or activities that do not contribute to the positive development of a person or an organization; which cause mental or physical harm; or which subject individuals to harassment, embarrassment, ridicule, or distress…. A student(s) allowing him/her self(selves) to be hazed is a violation of this policy.”

So, this policy literally says that a student can be punished for allowing himself to be ridiculed. Most hazing policies are terrible, and this is especially bad.

  1. punishes “Non-recognized student organizations using the name of the University, attempting to use the name of the University without the express written consent of the University…Individual students of the organizations may be charged whether or not the student was directly involved in the violation.”

Not all uses of a university’s name by a group can be prohibited, e.g. GMU cannot punish students for starting a non-recognized group called Transparent GMU, even if they actually did have the legal authority to ban the use of the name (which I doubt). And individual students should never be punished for mere membership in a group if they were not being directly involved in any wrongdoing, as this code allows.

    1. “Interfering with the normal operation of the teaching/learning environment;”

This is a very broad and vague standard.

  1. “Violation of written University policy or regulations contained in any official publication or administrative announcement of George Mason University (i.e., University Catalog, Resident Student Handbook, etc.);”

If you violate a minor student housing regulation that is otherwise not covered in the student code of conduct, you should only be subject to housing discipline, not university discipline. Under the GMU Residential Student Handbook, students living in dorms can be charged with “chronic misbehavior” for “recalcitrance, irresponsible conduct, or manifest immaturity.” And under this rule, those students can then be punished by the university for the crime of “immaturity,” whatever that means.

  1. “Alleged violation(s) of any local, state, federal or international law, provision of a lease, homeowner’s or condominium’s association rules or bylaws, whether on University premises, or off campus when such violation has or may have an adverse impact upon the University’s image, community or its members.”

GMU should never be punishing students simply for harming the University’s “image,” especially not for an “alleged” violation, and students should not be disciplined by a university for violating a provision of a lease with a private property owner.

    1. “Attempting to commit and/or complicity in any prohibited act(s) of the Code of Student Conduct including the failure to remove one’s self from incriminating situations and/or report the incident to proper authorities.”

This is a big problem: students at GMU can be punished for failing to report a violation of any of these rules, even if they did nothing wrong, and even if they didn’t know it was a violation of the rules.

  • “Retaliation against another student or member of the Mason community for their participation in any portion of the referral or student conduct process (which includes, but is not limited to serving as a witness in conduct hearings). This includes referring a student out of concern for their well-being to another person, student, or a University employee.”

I don’t even understand this rule. Referring a student to someone out of concern for their well-being is a punishable offense?

I don’t mean to single out George Mason University as having an unusually bad speech code, or to blame FIRE for praising their improvements. The truth is that most colleges have worse speech codes than GMU. Colleges today have so many policies spread across the university, and broadly defined speech codes, that they can easily punish any student for almost anything they want to. And even when their speech codes don’t allow for punishment, as with the cases of racist speech at the University of Oklahoma and the University of South Carolina, the university just goes ahead and suspends the students anyway.

It’s time for a new approach to fighting speech codes. We can’t sue our way to free speech, because colleges keep innovating new ways to suppress freedom on campus. And when all of them of doing it, it’s almost impossible to single out a few bad actors. And we can’t rely on piecemeal reforms such as at George Mason University, because fixing a few problem areas doesn’t solve all of the issues. We’re playing censorship whack-a-mole against an opponent that never quits. You can knock down one bad policy, and up pops a new one somewhere else on campus.

What we need is a model set of conduct codes and policies for the entire campus, endorsed by the AAUP and other organizations, that can be adopted by colleges across the country. And we need faculty and students and administrators to adopt these good speech codes that protect free speech, and then stop this endlessly tinkering to add more and more needless policies.

Schools: George Mason University