Mississippi’s largest community college unconstitutionally bans “cursing and vulgarity” and has barred a student from a course for swearing outside of class. Hinds Community College (HCC) student Isaac Rosenbloom was forbidden to return to class and given twelve “demerits” for being so “disrespectful” as to swear in the presence of fellow students and his instructor.
Today’s press release tells the story: On March 29, 2010, after their Oral Communication class, instructor Barbara Pyle and a few students stayed to discuss the students’ grades. At one point, Rosenbloom said that his grade was “going to fuck up my entire GPA.” According to Rosenbloom’s account in a recording of his April 6 hearing, Pyle began to yell and told him that his language was unacceptable and that she was giving him “detention.” Rosenbloom replied (accurately) that detention was not a punishment at HCC, and Pyle told him that she was sending him to the dean. Pyle then submitted a disciplinary complaint against Rosenbloom, stating that “this language was not to be tolerated [and] he could not say that under any circumstances [including in] the presence of the other students.”
Apparently Ms. Pyle thinks that she is teaching high school or perhaps middle school. We’re talking about a 29-year-old man here. At college, students are adults. As Robert says in the press release, “College students don’t lose their free speech rights when they arrive on campus. Will Hinds be sending its students to bed without supper next?”
Rosenbloom was charged with “flagrant disrespect” on March 31 and was found responsible for the offense. He received twelve demerits—three short of suspension—and was excluded from Pyle’s course. A copy of the decision was also placed in Rosenbloom’s student file.
Rosenbloom appealed the decision, but his appeal was denied. He is awaiting the results of a final appeal to HCC president Clyde Muse.
FIRE wrote Muse on April 27, pointing out that HCC’s speech policies are facially unconstitutional and that they were also applied unconstitutionally to punish Rosenbloom for his protected speech outside of class. While Rosenbloom was punished for “flagrant disrespect,” HCC also bans “public profanity, cursing and vulgarity,” which carries a fine of $25 for the first offense, $50 plus ten to fifteen demerits for the second offense, and suspension for the third offense. Muse did not respond.
Our letter added that the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who wore in a courthouse a jacket that had the very same word used by Rosenbloom. The Supreme Court wisely stated that “it is largely because governmental officials cannot make principled distinctions in this area that the Constitution leaves matters of taste and style so largely to the individual.” Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15, 25 (1971).
Hinds Community College simply is not empowered to set itself up as the vulgarity police. It is up to President Muse to decide whether to get his school in line with the First Amendment or to keep violating the rights of all HCC students. If you want to let him know your opinion, you can phone his office at 601-857-3230 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
FIRE will let you know what he decides.