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Speech Code of the Month: University of the Pacific

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for November 2008: University of the Pacific.

The university's policy on Harassment, Coercion, and Discrimination, found in its Student Handbook, provides that:

The University will not tolerate behavior that undermines the emotional, physical, or ethical integrity of any community member. Such proscribed behavior includes but is not limited to: [...] Conduct (intentional or unintentional) that has the effect of demeaning, ridiculing, defaming, stigmatizing, intimidating, slandering or impeding the work or movement of a person or persons or conduct that supports or parodies the oppression of others [....] These actions or behaviors include but are not limited to:

  • Verbal, nonverbal, or computer generated words or symbols;
  • Epithets, insults, jokes, teasing or derogatory comments;
  • Behavior or physical contact that impedes or blocks movement;
  • Derogatory posters, cartoons, or drawings;
  • Persistent unwanted behavior that threatens or intimidates;
  • Electronic postings, online communities, blogs (including University blogs).

This policy is so ridiculous, so fraught with attacks on free speech, that it is difficult for me to believe that anyone even remotely aware of the First Amendment allowed it to be implemented. After all, as a secular, private university in the state of California, the University of the Pacific is bound by the Leonard Law, which prohibits private institutions from maintaining regulations that at their public counterparts would violate the First Amendment.

This policy's failings could take up an entire article, rather than just a blog post, but I'll summarize a few of its most glaring problems:

First of all, "emotional integrity" and "ethical integrity" are so vague that they could mean virtually anything; no one can possibly know what is actually prohibited. Moreover, even assuming someone manages to figure out what these terms mean, the fact that someone can be punished for undermining the emotional or ethical integrity of "any community member" means that the most irrational, oversensitive person on campus has the power to determine what speech is allowable and what is not.

Second, even if someone makes a good-faith attempt to comply with this policy, he or she is not protected from punishment, since "unintentional" conduct is also punishablenot only unintentional expression that actually harasses, threatens, or intimidates, but also unintentional conduct that merely "demean[s]," "ridicul[es]," or "stigmatiz[es]." Also prohibited is conduct that "supports...the oppression of others," which could easily be read to include political expression such as opposition to affirmative action, illegal immigration, or gay marriage.

Finally, as the icing on the unlawful cake, the university provides some examples of prohibited conduct that explicitly include protected speech. For example, under this policy, "insults" and "teasing" are prohibited, as are "derogatory cartoons."

This policy, which openly threatens core political speech, explicitly bans protected speech, and leaves students at the mercy of the most sensitive members of their community, is one of the worst speech codes we at FIRE have ever seen. For this reason, it is our November 2008 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. And if you would like to help fight abuses at universities nationwide, add FIRE's Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog, website, or Facebook profile and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

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