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Northeastern University: Students Question, Administration Defends Speech Code

Northeastern University’s student newspaper, The Northeastern News, recently did a feature story on Northeastern’s Appropriate Use Policy, which makes punishable any e-mail “which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive.” FIRE was so appalled by this policy that we named it our February 2007 Speech Code of the Month, and now it seems to have caught the concerned eye of Northeastern students as well.

According to the article, FIRE’s concern over censorship at Northeastern is warranted:

In recent years there has been at least one case of censorship under the AUP.

In September 2005, university administrators ordered the student-run humor publication, The Northeastern Times New Roman (TNR), to temporarily close its website because of two articles the university deemed offensive by the AUP.

In that case, the university labeled one article offensive for its discussion of SARS, AIDS and Ebola, the other for its inappropriate language. At the university’s request, TNR posted a disclaimer warning readers of offensive material. The publication’s website was eventually restored.

A student interviewed for the article had this to say about the policy: “I feel you should be able to say whatever you want and expect privacy…It’s kind of scary that these regulations exist.”

Nonetheless, the Northeastern administration is standing behind this outrageous policy. Information Security and Identity Services Director Glenn Hill told the paper that “[p]rivate institutions have the right to regulate what’s done on their private property and with their possessions.” He also said, inexplicably, that the policy exists to “to protect, not restrict, academic discourse and free expression on campus.” How exactly one protects free expression by giving the university total discretion to decide what speech is offensive—and thus punishable—somehow escapes me. Perhaps Mr. Hill would like to clarify this for us.

In any event, while Mr. Hill is correct that private institutions have the right to make their own rules, Northeastern University explicitly claims that it “supports as fundamental to the democratic process the rights of all members of the University community to express their views.” News flash: in a diverse community, some people’s views will be offensive other people. If you claim authority to punish students for any e-mails that you might find offensive, you are denying members of the University community the right to express their views. While Northeastern is free to set its own rules, it is not free to promise its students one thing and then deliver another. Something’s gotta give.

It seems pretty clear what the students want. The question is, will the university listen?

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