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Columbia’s Contradiction: University Adopts Free Speech Statement, Keeps Restrictive Speech Codes

Columbia University has joined a growing number of institutions in adopting a statement forcefully proclaiming the university’s commitment to unfettered free speech. An “Affirmative Statement” added this fall to Columbia’s Rules of University Conduct proclaims:

The University, as a forum for the pursuit and attainment of knowledge in every field of human endeavor, has a special role in fostering free inquiry. A principal reason why universities have endured and flourished over centuries is that they provide a place for ideas to be tested, for values to be questioned, and for minds to be changed with as few constraints as possible. Like society at large, but even more so, the University has a vital interest in fostering a climate in which nothing is immune from scrutiny. And Columbia, in particular, has a long tradition of valuing dissent and controversy and in welcoming the clash of opinions onto the campus.

To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return. … Although the University values the civil and courteous exchange of viewpoints, it does not limit discussion because the ideas expressed might be thought offensive, immoral, disrespectful, or even dangerous. We expect that members of our community will engage in public discussions that may confront convention, and free expression would mean little if it did not include the right to express what others may reject or loathe.

FIRE commends Columbia for adopting this statement. While the university has always promised its students free speech rights, this expanded statement establishes Columbia’s commitment to free speech as a core part of the university’s identity. It also leaves no doubt that the university’s protection of free speech extends to the kinds of controversial and/or unpopular speech that many people claim must be prohibited in the name of civility.

There is just one problem: Columbia still maintains speech codes that prohibit exactly the kinds of speech the university claims to protect.

For example, Columbia’s Email Usage Policy prohibits users of university email from sending “offensive or other unwelcome messages.” How can the university square this with its proclamation that the university “will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is … offensive”? (Emphases added.)

Similarly, Columbia’s Student Policies and Procedures on Discrimination and Harassment provide that discriminatory harassment includes, among other things, “negative stereotyping” and “denigrating jokes.” While these types of speech may be, to use Columbia’s words, “objectionable,” “offensive,” and “disrespectful,” they should be protected unless they are so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive as to constitute harassment.

FIRE now calls on Columbia to live up to the admirable commitment it has made to free speech by abolishing its speech codes. Purdue University did this back in May, when it simultaneously adopted a free speech statement and eliminated its speech codes, earning FIRE’s highest, “green light” rating for free speech.

Columbia has taken an important step towards establishing the university as a champion of expressive rights. It must now take the next step and abolish its speech codes so that its students and faculty can actually exercise those rights.

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