PSU should revise free speech policy

November 28, 2007

When your university has a high-profile sports program, a solid academic reputation and an alumni association that rivals the population of Aruba, it’s bound to turn up among university rankings.

We’re a top 20 university for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students, said; we’re fifth in the nation for number of black faculty members, according to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education; and we’re a top 10 eco-friendly university, the Sierra Club said.

But this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) gave Penn State a ranking that would look better swept under a rug than hung up on the fridge.

The Philadelphia-based organization gave Penn State a “red light” for a policy that “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.”

The policy in question, which can be found under the Penn State Principles, says no member of the Penn State community will “engage in any behaviors that compromise or demean the dignity of individuals or groups, including intimidation, stalking, harassment, discrimination, taunting, ridiculing, insulting, or acts of violence.”

No one wants to be demeaned or intimidated in their learning environment, but should making fun your friends’ bad haircuts or unfortunate choices of rain boots, some examples of “taunting” and “ridiculing,” really be included in behaviors “that demean the dignity of individuals or groups?”

Speech is not harassment simply because it offends someone. Harassment is extreme behavior, behavior so repeated and severe that its victim is effectively denied an education.

Good-natured ribbing has a historic home on college campuses and within the college-age bracket, and while this policy is not referring to friendly jabs, the language is too vague and broad.

Penn State spokesman Geoff Rushton said FIRE was taking this policy out of context and the rating only exists to “garner attention.”

He added that Penn State has a commitment to vigorously defend free speech, and after the revisions of the administrative policies involving speech last year, this seems right on target.

These revisions, though prompted by one student’s lawsuit, opened up areas on campus “suitable for expressive activities” and more clearly defined harassment.

But Penn State’s squeamishness for anything offensive can be taken too far.

If the Supreme Court lets Nazis march through the Jewish neighborhoods of Skokie, college students should not expect any environment purged of any unpleasantness.