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Speech Code of the Month: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for February 2012: the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC).

For a number of years, UNC earned FIRE's poorest, "red light" rating for maintaining restrictive speech codes. This rating was due in large part to a list of sexual harassment examples that included a great deal of protected speech, such as "sexually explicit jokes" and "[i]nappropriate exposure to sexually oriented graffiti, pictures, posters, cartoons, or other such materials."

Who defines what is "inappropriate" at UNC? What does this restriction mean for students organizing and promoting discussions or artistic performances with sexual content? As FIRE wrote in our 2006 report on the state of the First Amendment in the UNC System:

This policy is unconstitutionally overbroad. By stating that these examples are sexual harassment, UNC Chapel Hill explicitly bans constitutionally protected speech, since the state cannot ban sexually explicit expression unless it meets the legal definition of obscenity or harassment. While these examples could constitute harassment if they were part of a course of conduct so severe, persistent and pervasive that it prevented someone from obtaining an education, they are not, standing alone, "examples of sexual harassment."

Several years ago, this list disappeared from UNC's website, and we thought that UNC had seen the error of its ways and done away with the policy. Accordingly, we upgraded UNC to a "yellow light" university and turned our focus to the remaining red light schools in the UNC System. Now, however, we have discovered that the list is back, once again misinforming UNC students about their rights and chilling expressive activity on UNC's campus.

FIRE hopes that by drawing attention to the list's return, we can convince UNC to remove it before we have to update the university's speech code information for the current academic year and change its rating back to a red light. Students at UNC deserve better.

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 Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE's Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

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