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Speech Code of the Month: Barnard College

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for April 2006: Barnard College.

This speech code deserves special recognition because it accomplishes the unique feat of violating itself. The Barnard College Posting Policy provides that “the following words cannot appear on any posted information at Barnard—shit, piss, suck, cunt, fuck, motherfucker, cocksucker and tits.” So I guess that means that if you post the Posting Policy on campus, you have violated the Posting Policy. You can’t make this stuff up.

This list of words—with the exception of “suck,” which I guess Barnard administrators just decided to throw in for good measure—comes from George Carlin’s monologue “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” This monologue was made famous by the Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), in which the Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s power to regulate indecent broadcasts. The Court’s decision was based primarily on the unique status of broadcast speech, which “confronts the citizen, not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home,” and which “is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read.” The Court explicitly emphasized the “narrowness” of its holding in Pacifica.

Outside of the broadcasting context, the Court has made clear that vulgar speech is entitled to a high degree of constitutional protection. In Cohen v. California (1971), the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who wore a jacket bearing the words “Fuck the Draft” into a courthouse. The Court distinguished the situation from one in which the government acts “to prohibit intrusion into the privacy of the home of unwelcome views and ideas,” holding that “the ability of government, consonant with the Constitution, to shut off discourse solely to protect others from hearing it is…dependent upon a showing that substantial privacy interests are being invaded in an essentially intolerable manner. Any broader view of this authority would effectively empower a majority to silence dissidents simply as a matter of personal predilections.”

Although Barnard is a private institution, it advertises itself as a place where students “are encouraged to openly express their views and opinions.” Therefore, students at Barnard should have the same free speech rights as their counterparts at New York’s public colleges and universities. However, First Amendment law provides absolutely no justification for an outright ban on the use of certain words, such as the one contained in Barnard’s Posting Policy.

Barnard claims to value students’ right to express their opinions. Sometimes, however, people express strong opinions in strong terms. For example, Eve Ensler’s play The Vagina Monologues includes a monologue entitled “Reclaiming Cunt.” Should publicity for such an event really be shut off on a college campus, which is supposed to be a marketplace of ideas?

If Barnard is truly the center of higher learning that it claims to be, it shouldn’t be afraid of a few dirty words.

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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