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Speech Code of the Month: Boise State University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for September 2014: Boise State University.

Boise State’s Information Technology Resource Use policy (PDF) prohibits the use of university IT resources for “displaying, transmitting, retrieving, or storing inappropriate or offensive material,” unless “identified and pre-approved in writing by the [Vice President for] Academic Affairs and Provost as part of legitimate research, teaching, or academic pursuits.”

According to the plain language of this policy, faculty whose courses include discussions of sensitive topics must obtain advance administrative approval before they send any potentially “offensive” course-related material to a class listserv or discussion group. And who gets to decide what is offensive? If a professor sends out a course-related article that leads a student in the class to complain about offense, can the professor be punished under this policy for failing to seek prior approval, even if he or she did not believe the article to be offensive? It is easy to see what a detrimental effect this policy could have on academic freedom at Boise State.

This policy does not exist in a vacuum. FIRE and other organizations have been growing increasingly concerned about how university policies and practices are affecting academic freedom at our nation’s colleges and universities. On Monday, for example, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) issued a statement opposing the use of “trigger warnings” in the classroom, writing:

The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual. It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement and … singles out politically controversial topics like sex, race, class, capitalism, and colonialism for attention. Indeed, if such topics are associated with triggers, correctly or not, they are likely to be marginalized if not avoided altogether by faculty who fear complaints for offending or discomforting some of their students. ...  In this way the demand for trigger warnings creates a repressive, “chilly climate” for critical thinking in the classroom.

And in the past several years, FIRE has criticized several universities for their treatment of faculty members whose germane class discussions have led to complaints by offended students.

Last November, for example, the University of Colorado at Boulder cancelled Professor Patti Adler’s popular “Deviance in U.S. Society” class and pressured Professor Adler to retire, after students complained that a classroom skit about prostitution (in which teaching assistants played the role of prostitutes and answered questions) made them uncomfortable. Although the university eventually changed its mind under public pressure and allowed her to teach the course, she had to cancel the prostitution lecture because her teaching assistants were reluctant to participate after the controversy. In 2011 and 2012, FIRE dealt with similar issues at the University of Denver and Appalachian State University, respectively. Boise State’s IT policy could lead to precisely these kinds of cases if faculty members discuss controversial issues with their students online without the express permission of the administration.

Making matters worse, Boise State’s policy flat-out prohibits the transmission of any “racially offensive” or “biased” materials. This prohibition directly affects the ability of faculty, students, and student organizations to discuss controversial topics over email, with or without prior approval. If a student organization sends out an invitation to a speech by an opponent of immigration, gay marriage, or affirmative action, would that invitation be “biased” or “racially offensive” material prohibited by the policy? With no way of knowing what is prohibited, students and faculty will likely just avoid the discussion of any controversial issues while using the university’s computing resources.

At a public university like Boise State, this is simply unacceptable. The university is required to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students and faculty, and banning “offensive” speech—or even singling it out for prior administrative approval—is a serious violation of these rights.

For these reasons, Boise State University is our September 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.

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