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Speech Code of the Month: Utah State University

FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for December 2017: Utah State University.

Utah State’s Student Code requires that “[a]ll interactions with faculty members, staff members, and other students shall be conducted with courtesy, civility, decency, and a concern for personal dignity.”

On the surface, this might sound reasonable: what’s wrong with asking for basic civility and respect? These are things I personally support — in fact, I consider the restoration of civil debate to be of critical importance to our increasingly polarized society. The problem here — to borrow a phrase from parents around the country, myself included — is that Utah State is not asking, they’re telling. And requiring people to speak only in ways that are civil and courteous is a violation of their right to free speech.

In a 2007 decision ordering San Francisco State University to stop enforcing its civility policy, a California federal judge penned what I think remains the best explanation of why a civility mandate violates the First Amendment:

[A] regulation that mandates civility easily could be understood as permitting only those forms of interaction that produce as little friction as possible, forms that are thoroughly lubricated by restraint, moderation, respect, social convention, and reason. The First Amendment difficulty with this kind of mandate should be obvious: the requirement “to be civil to one another” and the directive to eschew behaviors that are not consistent with “good citizenship” reasonably can be understood as prohibiting the kind of communication that it is necessary to use to convey the full emotional power with which a speaker embraces her ideas or the intensity and richness of the feelings that attach her to her cause. Similarly, mandating civility could deprive speakers of the tools they most need to connect emotionally with their audience, to move their audience to share their passion.

The administration of Utah State University is free to encourage its students and faculty to engage with each other in ways that are respectful, civil, and courteous. Administrators can make passionate pleas for decency and courtesy. They cannot, however, consistent with their obligations as a public university bound by the First Amendment, mandate those things.  

For this reason, Utah State University is our December 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 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.

Take Action: Tell Utah State University to Revise This Policy

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