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Illinois State Must Make Clear Aspirational Nature of 'Speech Code of the Month' Policy

In an article published Friday on the website for WJBC radio ("The Voice of Central Illinois"), Illinois State University (ISU) pushes back on FIRE's decision to name one of its policies our Speech Code of the Month for September 2012. While we appreciate the university's attention to this important matter, its response is misguided and should be corrected here.

The policy in question, found in ISU's Code of Student Conduct (PDF), is titled "To Be an Illinois State University Student." It sets forth a list of "non-negotiable values" at ISU, including "civility," "an appreciation of diversity," and "individual and social responsibility," and further provides:

These values are the hallmark of the University, and will be protected diligently. Each person has the right and ability to make decisions about his or her own conduct. Just as importantly, each person has the responsibility to accept the consequences of those decisions. When individual behavior conflicts with the values of the University, the individual must choose whether to adapt his or her behavior to meet the needs of the community or to leave the University. (Emphasis added.)

As our Samantha Harris wrote in naming this policy our Speech Code of the Month in September:

While terms like "diversity" and "social responsibility" may seem harmless, they are still very much "matters of opinion" upon which the state cannot require individuals to agree. One can imagine, for example, a great deal of political speech (on issues such as immigration, affirmative action, and so forth) that might not be viewed as "appreciative of diversity," but a public university like Illinois State cannot force students expressing such opinions to leave the university because they conflict with the university's "non-negotiable values."

Constitutionally speaking, this is not even a close call. The university can share with its students the values it deems important, and it can encourage them to agree. It cannot, however, exclude students whose otherwise lawful behavior does not accord with those values.

That analysis would seem straightforward enough, right? Not for ISU spokesman Jay Groves. He is quoted in the WJBC article as follows:

"They're looking at the value statement in the Student Code of Conduct and substituting it for the university's regulations, that which is enforcible," Groves said.

Groves said the code not a strict set of rules.

"The university does not interrupt anyone's rights of free speech," Groves said. "The only thing enforced are those regulations, and most of them are based in laws regarding safety, such as damage, theft, or harassment."

Groves said the misinformation comes out of the section called "To be an Illinois State University student." The section represents the way students should ideally treat each other, both on campus and in life.

If you are left confused by these statements, you are not alone. I am too, as is, in all likelihood, any ISU student who reads Groves' quotes and is left unsure of his or her speech rights at the university as a result. ISU's policy, after all, declares that the stated values "are the hallmark of the University, and will be protected diligently." (Emphasis added.) Even more transparently, it provides that "[w]hen individual behavior conflicts with the values of the University, the individual must choose whether to adapt his or her behavior to meet the needs of the community or to leave the University." (Emphasis added.) On its face, ISU's policy would seem to pretty clearly require a certain type of behavior on the part of students—even if that means choosing to self-censor rather than engage in expression that, while protected by the First Amendment, might conflict with the university's value statement.

If the university truly wishes to set forth an aspirational statement about the way students should ideally treat each other, as Groves contends, the good news is that it can easily do so—and in the process not just make its policy much clearer, but act to protect students' First Amendment rights as well. We have written many times before about how easily a university can encourage its students to adopt preferred campus values without requiring them to do so under pain of punishment, and perhaps the best example is Pennsylvania State University's "Penn State Principles." Back in 2009, the university revised the preamble to those principles (themselves a former Speech Code of the Month policy) to make clear that they were entirely aspirational and would not be enforced to punish student speech. The revised preamble read, in pertinent part:

The Pennsylvania State University is a community dedicated to personal and academic excellence. The Penn State Principles were developed to embody the values that we hope our students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni possess. At the same time, the University is strongly committed to freedom of expression. Consequently, these Principles do not constitute University policy and are not intended to interfere in any way with an individual's academic or personal freedoms. We hope, however, that individuals will voluntarily endorse these common principles, thereby contributing to the traditions and scholarly heritage left by those who preceded them, and will thus leave Penn State a better place for those who follow. (Emphasis added.)

In the same way, I hope ISU will adopt an aspirational statement making clear that its preferred institutional values are merely encouraged on the part of students and that adherence is not required under the threat of being forced to leave the university. We plan to write to ISU regarding this matter, and I hope the university will recognize the imprecision and threat to free speech presented by its current policy.

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