University ‘Speech Codes’ Under Fire

April 25, 2003

By Sue Collins at Plastic

“Should a university have the right to establish ‘speech codes’ prescribing how, where, and in some cases, what a student may say?” ms_sue_collins asks. “The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has begun a national campaign against such restrictions, saying that they amount to unconstitutional censorship. The group has filed a federal lawsuit against Shippensburg University in Pennysylvania and its president, Anthony Ceddia, on behalf of two students who wish to remain anonymous. The suit contends that the university’s code of conduct has a ‘chilling effect’ on the students’ right to express or discuss their ideas. Although there have been some major legal decisions against such codes, which began to surface on college campuses in the early 80s, FIRE claims that restrictions have ‘crept back into the world of higher education where they are very prevalent’; so the group plans to wage an organized legal battle over the next year by filing challenges in each of the 12 federal appellate circuits.

“Shippensburg’s code of conduct gives each student a ‘primary’ right to be free from harassment, intimidation, physical harm or emotional abuse; and a ‘secondary’ right to express a personal belief system in a manner that does not ‘provoke, harass, demean, intimidate or harm’ another. The code also prohibits any conduct that ‘annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group’ and any ‘suggestive or insulting sounds,’ and warns against ‘unconscious attitudes toward individuals which surface through the use of discriminatory semantics.’ Ceddia supplemented the code last month by restricting demonstrations or rallies to two specific ‘speech zones’ on campus, defending them as being necessary ‘to maintain the operation of the institution, meet the needs of students who paid tuition and are expecting to get an education, and protect them from needless intimidation and interlopers’ and believes that FIRE is misinterpreting the student conduct code:

Shippensburg University strongly and vigorously defends the right of free speech. As an institution of higher education we encourage and promote free speech among and between individuals and organizations…. The university is also committed to the principle that this discussion be conducted appropriately. We do have expectations that our students will conduct themselves in a civil manner that allows them to express their opinions without interfering with the rights of others.

“FIRE is asking the court to invalidate the speech code as a violation of the students’ constitutional rights to free speech, saying that it’s passionate expression and provocative dissent that especially need protection.”

Under this policy, a student who says Republicans are engaging in a racist war could be subject to punishment, as would a feminist student who goes to a rally with a sign that says `Keep your rosaries off my ovaries,’ or an evangelical student who uses expressions that offend a lesbian student…. Prejudice, intolerance and bigotry do not disappear when you prohibit their expression. You know what happens when students offend each other? They have conversations, and an exchange of views.

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Schools: Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania Cases: Shippensburg University: Speech Code Litigation