Minnesota's Bemidji State Axes 'Speech Code of the Month,' Sheds 'Red Light' Rating | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Minnesota's Bemidji State Axes 'Speech Code of the Month,' Sheds 'Red Light' Rating

This press release was sent to local Minnesota media outlets this afternoon: MINNEAPOLIS, June 20, 2013—Free speech is safer today at Bemidji State University (BSU), which has revised a policy identified by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a free-speech watchdog group, as violating the First Amendment. The revisions came after FIRE named the policy its "Speech Code of the Month" for June 2013.  FIRE defines a "speech code" as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Each month, FIRE features a particularly restrictive speech code as its Speech Code of the Month. The rule in question at BSU most notably banned "offensive" language. The Supreme Court has repeatedly determined that speech and expression cannot be prohibited simply because others find it offensive. For instance, in Texas v. Johnson (1989), the Court stated that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable."   Shortly after FIRE announced the rule's selection as Speech Code of the Month, BSU tweeted a notification that it had removed the objectionable language in its conduct code. The revised rule now prohibits only conduct, not speech.   Since eliminating the problematic language, BSU has been upgraded from a "red light" to a "yellow light" school in FIRE's Spotlight Database—a system that uses "red," "yellow," and "green" identifiers to rate how well policies at colleges and universities across the country comport with the First Amendment. Although the Speech Code of the Month was BSU's only "red light" policy, the university still maintains several "yellow light" policies—policies that, while less restrictive, still threaten protected speech.  If BSU revises the problematic language in its remaining policies, it would become Minnesota's first "green light" institution, joining 16 other schools in the nation to have earned the distinction.  "While BSU still maintains some troublesome policies, this revision is a great start," said Samantha Harris, FIRE's Director of Speech Code Research. "We would be thrilled to work with members of the administration to revise the university's remaining 'yellow light' policies and to make BSU the next 'green light' university."

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