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Speech Code of the Month: Saginaw Valley State University

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for November 2007: Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU).

SVSU, a public university in Michigan with approximately 8,000 undergraduates, maintains a Policy on Discrimination, Sexual Harassment and Racial Harassment that provides:

Physical acts or threats or verbal slurs, invectives or epithets, taunting or verbal abuse, degrading comments or jokes referring to an individual’s race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, age, marital or familial status, color, height, weight, handicap or disability are strictly prohibited. (Emphasis added).

As Speech Code of the Month readers no doubt know by now, “harassment” is an exacting legal standard, requiring conduct “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, 526 U.S. 629 (1999). Most “degrading comments or jokes” do not even approach this standard and are wholly protected by the First Amendment. As such, a public university like SVSU has no right to prohibit them.

In addition, as with so many Speech Codes of the Month, this policy is just plain silly. No degrading jokes about height? Weight? Age? Isn’t that what pretty much every prime-time sitcom in America revolves around? Mind you, I am not saying that I condone such jokes (as a short, slightly chubby person who just turned 30, I most certainly do not!), but rather that the speech SVSU seeks to prohibit among its students is speech that is not only protected by the First Amendment but that is commonplace in society at large. And the notion that adult college students somehow need to be protected from it is ludicrous.

For these reasons, Saginaw Valley State University is our November 2007 Speech Code of the Month. 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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