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Lafayette College responds to Trump’s executive order and criticism from FIRE

Watson Hall on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Last week, Lafayette College president Alison Byerly spoke about President Donald Trump’s executive order regarding campus free speech. Byerly expressed some concern about its enforcement, yet sounded confident that it would not affect the college “in any way” and unconcerned about Lafayette policies flagged by FIRE that do not meet First Amendment standards.

It’s fair for Byerly to point out that the logistics of enforcement of the order are unknown at this time — FIRE said as much in our statement following the order’s signing, calling the standard by which federal agencies will ensure compliance “the order’s most consequential component.” We also assured that FIRE will watch closely to see if enforcement of the order results in consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom.

However, Byerly’s claim that Lafayette has “very good handbook language pertaining to our speech policies” is patently false. For just one example, the introduction to Lafayette’s code of conduct, appearing in the school’s student handbook, earned our Speech Code of the Month designation this past October for clearly and substantially restricting speech that is protected under First Amendment standards. Specifically, the policy bans “emotional” and “mental harm,” as well as “any activity that harms or demeans others.” Speech doesn’t lose constitutional protection merely for subjectively demeaning others, and emotional and mental harm are vague terms that could too easily be applied to punish protected speech, like harsh words or teasing.

Lafayette is a private college, but if it wants to continue claiming its policies are consistent with First Amendment principles and with the promises of free speech it makes in official policy materials, it needs to revise its speech codes accordingly.

When asked directly about FIRE’s critique of the Speech Code of the Month policy, Byerly responded that “[a] lot of other colleges and universities find that they have statements in their handbook that that particular organization doesn’t support.” Unfortunately, she’s right about that — our most recent Spotlight on Speech Codes report found that nearly 90% of the 466 colleges and universities in our Spotlight database maintain at least one policy that restricts free speech. But there’s no safety in those numbers; policies with the problematic language identified in our database have been routinely struck down by courts and revised as part of settlement agreements.

Whatever the future may hold for enforcement of the executive order on campus free speech, FIRE is always available to work collaboratively with college and university administrators and to recommend revisions that would bring policies in line with First Amendment standards.

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