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Speech Codes of the Year: 2011

Each month, FIRE singles out a particularly reprehensible campus speech code for our Speech Code of the Month designation. While all of 2011's Speech Codes of the Month flagrantly violated students' and faculty members' right to free expression, two of them were so egregious that they deserve special mention as 2011's Speech Codes of the Year.

  • University of Florida. According to the University of Florida's Student Rights and Responsibilities policy, "Organizations or individuals that adversely upset the delicate balance of communal living will be subject to disciplinary action by the University." If there has ever been a textbook example of unconstitutional vagueness, this is it-there is absolutely no way for students to know what this policy actually prohibits, so they can only guess at what speech or expression might lead to discipline. What's more, the policy is painfully paternalistic. Discipline for anyone who upsets the "delicate balance of communal living" among a group of adults? Policies like this one send a powerful message that students are too weak to live with freedom, and that the appropriate response to even the most minor offense is to run to the administration instead of directly confronting and responding to those who give offense by their words or actions. Twenty-year-olds who, instead of enrolling in college, have entered the workforce and rent a house with a group of other people must negotiate the "delicate balance of communal living" without assistance from Big Brother, and twenty-year-old college students are capable of doing so as well.
  • California State University–Chico. Students are not the only ones affected by campus speech codes; some codes apply to faculty members as well, compromising their ability to teach controversial or sensitive material without fear of punishment. At CSU-Chico, faculty commit sexual harassment if they "implicitly devalue students for their gender or sexual orientation." According to university policy, examples of this type of harassment include "reinforcement of sexist stereotypes through subtle, often unintentional means," including the use of "stereotypic generalizations." Also prohibited is the "continual use of generic masculine terms such as to refer to people of both sexes or references to both men and women as necessarily heterosexual." As would be expected at a major university, CSU-Chico offers many courses that necessarily involve sensitive issues relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Faculty members addressing such topics in the classroom at CSU-Chico risk violating this policy when discussing controversial but wholly germane subjects. And FIRE's concern over such violations is anything but hypothetical: since our inception, we have handled all too many cases involving faculty members who faced discipline for classroom expression that should have been wholly protected by the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

Since FIRE's Speech Code of the Month became a regular feature in June 2005, 31 universities have fully revised the policies that earned them the dubious distinction, including three schools awarded Speech Code of the Month in 2011. We hope that in 2012, more universities–including those named here–will make the changes necessary to give their students and professors the freedom they deserve. Happy holidays, and look for 2012's first Speech Code of the Month in January!

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