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Speech Codes of the Year: 2009

As Torch readers know, each month FIRE singles out a particularly reprehensible speech code for our Speech Code of the Month award. While all 12 Speech Codes of the Month in 2009 flagrantly violated students' right to free expression, three were so egregious that they deserve special mention as 2009's Speech Codes of the Year.

  • New York University. NYU's Anti-Harassment Policy prohibits "insulting," "teasing," and even "inappropriate jokes" based on categories such as race and religion. Although NYU is private, its policies purport to protect the right to free speech, providing that "[f]ree inquiry, free expression, and free association are indispensable to the purposes of the University, and must be protected as a matter of academic freedom within the University, quite apart from the question of constitutional rights." The Anti-Harassment Policy stands in direct contradiction to this promise. There are many important conversations to be had on matters such as race, religion, and gender that will likely—in a truly open debate—lead to feelings of insult or hurt. By subjecting students engaging in this type of unfettered free expression to punishment, based on the response of the listener, NYU is simply shutting down whole avenues of discussion.
  • Rhode Island College. At RIC, the Code of Social Responsibility for the residence halls not only prohibits protected speech, but violates students' right to freedom of conscience by attempting to regulate their innermost thoughts. The Code states that RIC "will not tolerate actions or attitudes that threaten the welfare of any of its members." (Emphasis added.) This prohibition on certain "attitudes" represents a serious and unconstitutional attempt by the public university to regulate its students' thoughts as well as their speech. However, the policy does not spare their speech, either—it prohibits (among other things) any "racially biased comments," a prohibition which could easily be used to punish core political expression, since many would consider certain opinions about important issues like affirmative action and illegal immigration to be biased.
  • SUNY Brockport. Brockport's Internet/Email Rules and Regulations prohibit electronic transmissions that "annoy" or "otherwise inconvenience" anyone, including "offensive language or graphics (whether or not the receiver objects, since others may come in contact with it)." This outrageously restrictive policy is particularly shocking coming from SUNY Brockport, since the university has already been the subject of one successful First Amendment lawsuit.

Since FIRE's Speech Code of the Month became a regular feature in June 2005, 21 universities have fully revised the policies that earned them the dubious distinction. It is our hope that in 2009, more universitiesincluding those named herewill make the changes necessary to give their students the freedom they deserve. Happy holidays, and look for 2010's first Speech Code of the Month in January!

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