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Speech Code of the Month: Shawnee State University

Editor's note: Shawnee State University revised this speech code shortly after FIRE named the policy our Speech Code of the Month.

Bans on posting or sending “racially offensive” or “racist” materials over university wireless networks are unfortunately commonplace in FIRE’s Spotlight database. As FIRE has discussed time and time again, materials about race that are subjectively offensive to some — or even most — are still protected by the First Amendment, unless they’re included in unprotected speech or conduct like threats or harassment.

But Ohio’s Shawnee State University has somehow gone even further than those more typical bans, earning its spot as FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month for August 2018. The university’s “Conditions for Use of Campus Computing Resources” policy bans the dissemination of any “libelous, slanderous, racial, or offensive material” on its wireless network. Not racist, but racial.

Any material that even relates to the broad topic of race could be sanctioned under this policy, from tweeting about an affirmative action debate to sharing a Chappelle’s Show skit on Facebook.

And we need not explore hypotheticals alone to understand the potential scope of a policy like this — universities have all too often investigated or punished faculty members and students over their race-related online speech:

  • Drexel University threatened an associate professor with investigation over a tweet that read: “All I Want For Christmas is White Genocide.”
  • A Texas Christian University student was suspended after posting commentary to his Facebook and Twitter profiles related to unrest in Baltimore and the rise of the “Islamic State.”
  • Fresno State University administrators announced the initiation of a “long” investigation after a professor called Barbara Bush “racist” on her Twitter account.
  • A student was suspended from Colorado College after posting what he said was a joking response to the comment “#blackwomenmatter” on the social media application Yik Yak.

Shawnee State’s policy invites similar abuses, and is plainly inconsistent with its legal obligation as a public university to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students. Indeed, the Supreme Court of the United States has held, in rulings spanning decades, that the perception that expression “demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground” is not a sufficient basis to remove speech from the protection of the First Amendment.

Students cannot be protected from racial harassment by banning all racial discussions altogether. Instead, Shawnee State must revise its policy so that it restricts only speech and conduct that is not constitutionally protected.

For this reason, Shawnee State University is our August 2018 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 or Faculty Network to connect with a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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