JACKSON, Miss., May 18, 2010—Mississippi’s largest community college unconstitutionally bans “cursing and vulgarity” and has barred a student from a course for swearing outside of class. After Hinds Community College (HCC) student Isaac Rosenbloom was forbidden to return to class and given twelve “demerits,” he turned to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“It is quite absurd that a college has decided that a 29-year-old man who uses a four-letter word out of frustration after a class should be officially punished,” said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. “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?”
On March 29, 2010, after their Oral Communication class, instructor Barbara Pyle and a few students stayed after class to discuss the students’ grades. At one point, Rosenbloom said that his grade was “going to f–k 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.”
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.
“Outside of official class time, HCC has no authority to punish a student for cursing in this way or for being ‘disrespectful,'” said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “Overturning the conviction of a man who wore in a courthouse a jacket that had the very same word on it, the Supreme Court wisely said 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.’ Hinds Community College simply is not empowered to set itself up as the vulgarity police.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.