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Speech Code of the Month: University of New Mexico

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2014: the University of New Mexico.

The University of New Mexico’s (UNM’s) Sexual Harassment Policy (PDF) states that “[e]xamples of sexual harassment which shall not be tolerated” include “suggestive” letters, notes, or invitations. The policy also prohibits “displaying sexually suggestive or derogatory objects, pictures, cartoons, or posters,” albeit with the vague disclaimer that such displays will be “evaluated for appropriateness such as art displayed in museums … .”

This policy prohibits far more than the type of severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive conduct that actually constitutes sexual harassment in the educational setting. Most “sexually suggestive” expression is in fact fully protected by the First Amendment, which UNM, as a public university, is legally obligated to uphold.

Indeed, UNM is no stranger to sexually suggestive expression. According to The College Fix, this week, September 29–Oct 2 is “Sex Week” at UNM—a weeklong series of programs for students including “Negotiating Successful Threesomes,” “O-Face Oral” and “BJs and Beyond.” Sex Week is sponsored in part by the university’s Women’s Resource Center. Sex Week also violates the university’s own speech codes, since even the titles of the workshops—and thus any Sex Week promotional materials—are “sexually suggestive.”

Some students have protested Sex Week, claiming to be offended, but the university has defended the sexually explicit presentations by citing the importance of free speech—even controversial and offensive speech—in the university setting. According to a statement issued by the university,

The provocative nature of the titles of the workshops has spurred a lot of conversations about the appropriateness of sex education on campus. UNM’s policy on free speech describes why a college campus is a correct venue for debate and controversial topics:

“As an institution that exists for the express purposes of education, research, and public service, the University is dependent upon the unfettered flow of ideas, not only in the classroom and the laboratory, but also in all University activities. As such, protecting freedom of expression is of central importance to the University.”

Policy 2220: Freedom of Expression and Dissent suggest a way to respond to speech or topics that are counter to a person’s belief’s [sic] or perspective: “The exchange of diverse viewpoints may expose people to ideas some find offensive, even abhorrent. The way that ideas are expressed may cause discomfort to those who disagree with them. The appropriate response to such speech is speech expressing opposing ideas and continued dialogue, not curtailment of speech.”

FIRE is always happy to see a university take a strong stand for free speech. If UNM truly believes what it is saying, however, why does it maintain unconstitutional speech codes that prohibit exactly the kind of speech at issue here? In addition to the sexual harassment policy that conflicts directly with some of the expression taking place during Sex Week, the university maintains a Respectful Campus Policy (PDF) that prohibits “unduly inflammatory statements” and any other actions that are “destructive to a respectful campus.” This prohibition completely contradicts the university’s acknowledgment that free speech may cause “discomfort” and be “abhorrent” to people who disagree.

Too often, universities speak in lofty terms about the importance of free speech when it is politically convenient—and then throw it under the bus when it isn’t. (That’s what the University of New Mexico itself did shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, when it disciplined a professor who joked that “anyone who can bomb the Pentagon has my vote.”) While UNM claims to value free speech, its policies actually prohibit a great deal of constitutionally protected expression. For this reason, UNM is our October 2014 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, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

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