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Speech Code of the Month: Albertson College of Idaho

FIRE is proud to announce the Speech Code of the Month for July 2005: Albertson College of Idaho.

The Albertson College Student Handbook’s harassment policy states that “[a]ny comments or conduct relating to a person’s race, gender, religion, disability, age or ethnic background that fail to respect the dignity and feelings of the individual are unacceptable.” The Handbook also provides that “[a]ll inappropriate behaviors may not be specifically covered in the misconduct definitions, and students will be held accountable for behaviors considered inconsistent with the standards and expectations described in this handbook.”

These provisions are wholly inconsistent with freedom. First, the prohibition on comments that “fail to respect [individuals’] dignity and feelings” clearly infringes upon protected speech. Although students generally have a right to be free from certain types of severe harassment, they do not have a legal right to have their dignity and feelings respected. This provision is particularly dangerous because it could easily be used to silence legitimate classroom discussion. For example, a student who expresses the opinion that women should not serve in combat positions, or that women should stay home with their children, might be guilty of failing to respect the dignity and feelings of women in the classroom.

Yet more disturbing is Albertson’s provision that students may be punished for undefined behaviors that the school considers “inconsistent with the standards and expectations” of the Student Handbook. This is dangerous because students may be punished for behaviors they do not even know are prohibited. Particularly when combined with the broad restrictions on speech outlined above, this can have a powerful chilling effect on students’ speech. Moreover, were Albertson a public school, this provision would be unconstitutional. Due process requires that “laws give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly.” Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09 (1972). If a law does not do so, it is unconstitutionally vague. Although Albertson, as a private institution, is not legally bound by the Constitution, it advertises itself as a true liberal arts college, a place that “prepares one to live a life of freedom.” It cannot simultaneously advertise this and then strip students of the very freedom it extols.

For these reasons, Albertson College of Idaho is our July 2005 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

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