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Speech Code of the Month: Colorado State University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for August 2006: Colorado State University.

Colorado State University’s Residence Hall Handbook bans “hate incidents,” which it defines as:

[E]xpressions of hostility against a person or property because of a person’s race, color, ancestry, national origin, religion, ability, age, gender, socio-economic status, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

Expressions of hostility… because of a person’s ability? It is a punishable offense to call someone a dumbass at Colorado State?!? On a more serious note, would the college actually punish a student for saying the school gives “rich snobs preferential treatment” (an expression of hostility because of socio-economic status), or for vocally slamming the Catholic Church for preventing the ordination of women (an expression of hostility because of religion)?

Honestly, I don’t even think I need to dignify this policy with a serious, legalistic explanation of why it is wrong—you don’t need a law degree to understand that you have a First Amendment right to call someone a dumbass. As a lawyer, though, I can’t resist pointing out that in addition to just being silly, this policy also directly contradicts decades of established Supreme Court precedent. For example, in Terminiello v. Chicago, the Court held that “freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.”

A public university cannot ban “expressions of hostility.” People are allowed to be hostile. Only when those expressions cross the line into constitutionally unprotected harassment—i.e., when they are so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that they effectively bar the victim’s access to an education—may a public university like Colorado State prohibit them.

If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail 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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