FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for October 2017: University of North Georgia.
UNG’s Student Code of Conduct defines “discrimination” as “[c]onduct and/or expressions that harass, demean, or degrade any individual or group of individuals who are members of a protected class.”
This policy prohibits an extraordinary amount of constitutionally protected speech — speech that the University of North Georgia, a public institution, is required by the First Amendment to protect. While the university may legitimately prohibit unlawfully harassing conduct, it may not prohibit speech simply because an individual or group finds that speech subjectively demeaning or degrading. Harassment, in addition to being severe and pervasive enough that it effectively denies the victim the ability to obtain an education, must be “objectively offensive” — that is, offensive not only to the victim but also to a reasonable person in the victim’s position. This important requirement ensures that students’ free speech rights are not beholden to the vagaries of every listener’s individual temperament.
If the university can punish speech and expression simply because someone else finds it demeaning or degrading, all manner of expression on controversial topics will be subject to punishment, and discussion and debate will be dangerously chilled as a result. UNG must revise this unconstitutional policy and restore its students’ free speech rights immediately.
For this reason, University of North Georgia is our October 2017 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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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 the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.