MSU punishment not addressing reality; students must be educated

March 29, 2006

No one likes getting called names, especially when those names are derogatory or offensive.

But name calling, even though we’re in college and should be above that, is not a crime.

At least in the real world it isn’t.

As we should now know, though, MSU and college isn’t the real world.

At MSU, name calling might get you in hot water according to university policy. That policy states that any harassment designed to demean individuals and groups on the basis of age, color, gender, disability status, height, weight, marital status, national origin, political persuasion, race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or veteran status can be considered discrimination and punishable under university authority.

But what exactly does harassment mean?

There have been several incidents on campus that have prompted Residence Life staff members to talk with students. Those incidents include people making racially insensitive comments and writing them on dry-erase boards.

MSU’s harassment and intimidation policy states that both "physical and emotional harassment will not be tolerated in a residence hall community."

The policy on the surface, seems like a good idea. Harassment is wrong and makes people feel unwelcome, and that’s something we don’t want at MSU.

But at what point does punishing people for what they say become an infringement of free speech?

MSU is a public college, which means the residential halls are public too, and the First Amendment applies.

The university can punish students for attacking others or becoming physically threatening, but punishing them for the things they say is a different issue.

After all, language and action are different and should be treated as such.

Think for a second about the kind of language MSU wants to keep out of the residence halls. It has to be demeaning, which is subjective, and make people feel unsafe.

What if someone holds a speech in a residence hall in which they say racially negative things or things that women might consider offensive?

They’re not threatening people, just stating an unpopular opinion.

Could an offended student then try to have that person punished because they said demeaning things about a minority group?

That’s a scary thought.

Actions should of course be punished. Defacing someone’s door with slurs is a physical violation of someone’s space.

People shouldn’t be punished for expressing an opinion, even one that’s outdated, racist, homophobic or negative.

MSU is certainly not the only college with rules that could restrict free speech.

Samantha Harris, program officer for The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonpartisan civil liberties group, said many colleges have rules they call speech codes in place.

She said that colleges don’t want students to feel hurt or insulted, which is an admirable goal, but public colleges cannot restrict students’ free speech.

The university has every right to advocate that demeaning speech be eliminated at MSU.

And they are obligated to protect students from attacks and physical violence.

But college is supposed to be a time when we learn a lot about the world and how we live in it.

There are few places as politically correct and progressive as a university, but the rest of the world isn’t like that.

There are times in the real world that we’ll get called a name or hear language we disagree with. We have a responsibility then to try and change the way people view others and hope to educate them about how much we need to get along in this world.

But we can’t tell them to stop saying those things or we’ll get them in trouble. That shouldn’t be how we solve these kinds of issues. Education, not punishment, is what we should be focusing on.

Or the next time I’m in my dorm and someone tells me The State News is a liberal rag, I’m getting them written up for harassment.

Schools: Michigan State University