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Speech Code of the Month: Northeastern University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for February 2007: Northeastern University in Boston.

We would like to congratulate Northeastern on being named one of America’s Top 100 National Universities by U.S. News & World Report this past summer. On behalf of everyone at FIRE, welcome to our radar screen!*

Northeastern’s Appropriate Use of Computer and Network Resources Policy provides that no student may use Northeastern’s information systems or facilities to “[g]enerate and/or spread intolerant or hateful material, which in the sole judgment of the University is directed against any individual or group, based on race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, age, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, veteran status, genetic makeup, or disability” or to “[t]ransmit or make accessible material, which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive….”

Although it is a private university, Northeastern promotes itself as an institution that supports “the rights of all members of the University community to express their views.” And yet, it reserves the right to punish students for any electronic communications that it deems “intolerant” or “offensive.” This is precisely the opposite of supporting the rights of students to express their views. The reality is that when controversial topics are under discussion—as they absolutely should be at a university—one person’s views will frequently seem intolerant or offensive to another person. The reality is also that in today’s world, e-mail and other electronic media are a primary channel through which people—particularly younger adults such as college students—communicate with one another. This policy, therefore, is likely to discourage the discussion of controversial topics at Northeastern.

It is also deeply disturbing that the university has reserved for itself unfettered discretion to decide what is offensive or intolerant. How is a student conceivably supposed to know what the university, in its “sole judgment,” will consider punishable? Without reference to any objective standards (such as the “reasonable person” standard employed in harassment law), students are forced to guess at what the university might punish, and in all likelihood will refrain from a great deal of important, protected, but controversial speech in an effort to steer clear of this exceptionally vague policy.

For these reasons, Northeastern University is our February 2007 Speech Code of the Month. 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.

*FIRE’s Spotlight: The Campus Freedom Resource contains information on speech-restrictive policies at America’s Top 100 National Universities and Top 50 Liberal Arts Colleges, in addition to numerous other public colleges and universities.

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