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Speech Code of the Month: Grinnell College

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for March 2016: Grinnell College in Iowa.

FIRE recently downgraded Grinnell College to our poorest, “red light” speech code rating for a “bias-motivated incident” policy that makes a great deal of speech punishable at the college.

Grinnell defines a bias-motivated incident as

an expression of hostility against a person, group, or property thereof because of such person’s (or group’s) identifying or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, gender, gender identity or expression, and/or sexual orientation.

Grinnell takes these incidents very seriously, promising that “[s]ince these behaviors are not reflective of our Community Standards, student(s) found responsible for bias-related charges may face outcomes up to and including suspension, dismissal or degree withdrawal.”

This is extremely broad language, encompassing, on its face, virtually any critical opinion someone expresses on topics like religion, gender, race, or sexuality. Do you think evangelical Christians have an objectionable attitude about issues of sexuality? If you say that out loud at Grinnell, it’s a bias-motivated incident. Do you support greater restrictions on immigration? Bias-motivated incident. Have you accused someone of “mansplaining”? Bias-motivated incident. I could go on, but you get the idea: When a college tries to control the tone of student discourse by threatening punishment for any speech or expression that another person subjectively perceives as “hostile,” no one is safe. And when people can’t debate and disagree with one another without walking on eggshells, the quality of engagement on campus suffers as a result.

Although Grinnell is private, its stated mission is to provide a liberal arts education “through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas.” But if anything more than the most sanitized, watered-down arguments about controversial issues are potentially punishable, then open exchange cannot occur. For this reason, Grinnell College is our March 2016 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 the FIRE Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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