DURANGO, Colo., Mar. 15, 2022 – If you're a student at Fort Lewis College who wants to advertise an event or decorate your dorm room, your safest bet is to buy bland posters that espouse no opinions.
Fort Lewis’ Campus Posting policy bans “libel, obscenity, or hate speech.” Because the policy could be used to crack down on expression protected by the First Amendment, it earns the title of FIRE’s March 2022 Speech Code of the Month.
Every month, FIRE highlights a university policy that hinders students’ free expression. Under the Fort Lewis policy, student flyers, posters, banners, or chalk messages are banned if they contain “unprotected expressions” including “hate speech,” meaning any student whose speech is deemed hateful is subject to disciplinary action.
“If anything that could be construed as hateful is off the table, how much will students miss out on?” said Laura Beltz, FIRE’s director of policy reform. “From Halloween parties to talks about feminism to movie posters hanging in dorm rooms, almost any campus activity has the potential to run afoul of this policy.”
As a public college, Fort Lewis is legally bound to respect its students’ First Amendment rights. While libel and obscenity are exceptions to the First Amendment and are not protected categories of expression, hate speech does not have a clear definition. Hateful speech could constitute an exception to the First Amendment, but not all speech that is called hateful meets these standards.
In other words, banning hate speech could very likely lead to First Amendment violations, as almost anything offensive could be considered “hateful” by someone. A simple flag could be considered hate speech — for example, a Trump 2020 flag or a Black Lives Matter flag. Fort Lewis cannot ban every flag that students want to hang in their dorm rooms, even if some fellow students find the flags offensive.
According to the Supreme Court in Snyder v. Phelps, speech cannot be silenced just because someone else interprets it as hateful. In this decision, the Court sided with the Westboro Baptist Church, who picketed a military funeral, holding signs with messages like “God hates you,” “Fag troops,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” The Court explained that our nation protects “even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
“Fort Lewis is doing its students a disservice,” said Beltz. “The college is trying to leave student speech unprotected, but that’s not how it works. Fort Lewis students do have rights under the First Amendment, whether college administrators like it or not. We urge Fort Lewis to update its policy immediately.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to defending and sustaining the individual rights of students and faculty members at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, freedom of association, due process, legal equality, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience — the essential qualities of liberty.
Anthony Ventresca, Communications Co-Op, FIRE: email@example.com