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Humboldt Professor Warns of Censorship on Campus

Marcy Burstiner, chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University (HSU) in California, has a message for HSU administrators: Fix unconstitutional speech codes, or be prepared for a fight.

As Burstiner notes in her column for the North Coast Journal, HSU has earned a “red light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database for its policy on “Community Respect” in its “Current Residents Handbook,” which gives administrators broad discretion to censor posters based on “appropriateness/reasonableness.” Demonstrating the the all-too-common, yet mistaken, impression that “time, place, and manner” are magic words that make any restriction on speech constitutional, the policy says:

We reserve the right to determine the appropriateness/reasonableness of decorations and to request the removal of and/or physically remove posters, signs and/or other forms of expression in public view that are perceived as offensive, degrading, discriminatory or which promote hate toward community members, including members of constitutionally protected categories. While we certainly support the rights of individuals to express thoughts and ideas, reasonable time, place and manner of that expression will be expected of all members of the residence hall community.

People have all sorts of opinions on what’s offensive, of course, and Burstiner’s conclusion on this point is an important one: “The only way to make sure no one gets offended is to have no speech.”

This policy is far from the end of HSU’s transgressions. Along with maintaining a handful of “yellow light” policies—policies that can too easily be used to punish protected speech—HSU administrators have taken concrete steps to stifle student speech. Burstiner recounts some of these incidents in yesterday’s column:

FIRE didn't tackle the administration's attempt last year to keep the student newspaper from distributing issues after it reported the names of students who were stabbed at a party. It didn't mention administrators' attempts to keep student reporters from interviewing prospective students after the tragic Orland bus crash last year. And it didn't note the administration's many attempts to keep the student press out of important policy and funding meetings or make it difficult for student reporters to get interviews with administrators.

Unfortunately, FIRE sees incidents like this happen all the time—and we know that what we catch isn’t even the half of it. That’s why it’s so important for students and professors to let us know when they’ve been censored or otherwise punished for constitutionally protected speech so we can help fight back against campus speech codes.

Burstiner knows all about the consequences awaiting universities that fail to heed FIRE’s warnings. She writes:

This year, Modesto Junior College settled a lawsuit FIRE filed after a student was prevented from distributing copies of the U.S. Constitution outside of the school's "free speech zone." FIRE announced it would start filing lawsuits one by one against public universities to challenge such restrictive policies. Modesto paid the student plaintiff $50,000. At some point HSU might find itself a target.

But protecting expression on campus shouldn’t just be motivated by a desire to avoid lawsuits. HSU’s red light policy, she explains, is counterproductive:

Blanket policies stifling expression don't get people to respect each other. Communication between people does that. You don't want to live in a dorm where someone has the Confederate flag in his window. But really, you don't want to live next to the guy who wants to hang the flag. Telling students what they can and cannot put in their windows doesn't make the dorm hate-free. More effective are the friends or classmates who tell the Confederate flag guy how totally whacked he is after he hangs it.

We couldn’t agree more. But if colleges won’t get rid of speech codes because they are unconstitutional and antithetical to their mission of education, then FIRE will not rest until a federal judge orders them to do so.

FIRE hopes that the HSU community—and students and professors across the country—are inspired by Burstiner’s message to stand up for speech. If you see administrators censoring expression on campus or want to work with FIRE to help change your college’s speech codes, email us at

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