Table of Contents

Speech Code of the Month: Arkansas State University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for August 2014: Arkansas State University.

Arkansas State’s Standards of Student Conduct (PDF) include a set of “principles [that] are part of the collective expectation of the members of this community relative to personal conduct.” One of those principles is “civility,” which Arkansas State defines as follows:

Members of a learning community interact with others in a courteous and polite manner. Members of the community are expected to respect the values, opinions or feelings of others.

Lest there be any question as to whether these “principles” are aspirational or mandatory, the policy goes on to state:

The university reserves the right to discipline students or student organizations for inappropriate actions that occur on or off the campus to secure compliance with these higher obligations. Students failing to maintain these higher obligations may be asked to leave the academic community.

Think about this policy in light of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict going on right now and the intense emotions that conflict is producing in people whose sympathies lie on either side of the conflict. Under the plain language of this policy, Arkansas State could not only discipline but expel a student for engaging in a heated argument with another student about the conflict. If one student failed to respond to another’s arguments in a “courteous” or “polite” manner, or if he or she demonstrated a lack of “respect” for another student’s opinions, that could spell the end of his or her education at Arkansas State. That is not only blatantly unconstitutional; it also goes against everything that a university should stand for.

People are allowed to be passionate. They are allowed to disrespect others’ opinions, even to insult and shock people in the course of expressing their views. That may not always be the most effective way to argue—in most cases, I think civil, reasoned debate wins the day—but people’s right to express strong feelings cannot be shut down in the name of “civility” or “respect.”

Indeed, it was a student anti-terrorism protest that, in 2006, led San Francisco State University (SFSU) to enforce its civility mandate—an action that ultimately led to a federal judge declaring the policy unconstitutional.

The College Republicans (CRs) at SFSU held an anti-terrorism protest against Hezbollah and Hamas by stomping on homemade replicas of those organizations’ flags. Unbeknownst to the students, the flags of the two organizations contain the word “Allah” in Arabic script, which led several students to complain to the administration about the protest. Ultimately, the university charged the CRs with (among other things) “actions of incivility,” and the CRs filed a federal lawsuit alleging the policy violated their First Amendment rights.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Wayne Brazil enjoined SFSU from enforcing the civility policy, writing:

The First Amendment difficulty with this kind of mandate should be obvious: the requirement “to be civil to one another” and the directive to eschew behaviors that are not consistent with “good citizenship” reasonably can be understood as prohibiting the kind of communication that it is necessary to use to convey the full emotional power with which a speaker embraces her ideas or the intensity and richness of the feelings that attach her to her cause. Similarly, mandating civility could deprive speakers of the tools they most need to connect emotionally with their audience, to move their audience to share their passion.

In sum, there is a substantial risk that the civility requirement will inhibit or deter use of the forms and means of communication that, to many speakers in circumstances of the greatest First Amendment sensitivity, will be the most valued and the most effective.

Arkansas State continues to maintain a policy that prohibits its students from engaging in any kind of heated debate or discussion, a policy that is both unconstitutional and immoral at a public university that claims that it “highly regards the [F]irst [A]mendment guarantees of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and the right to assemble peaceably.”

For these reasons, Arkansas State University is our August 2014 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy 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. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.