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University at Buffalo Responds to Speech Code of the Month Inquiry

FIRE supporter and New York state resident Lee Brink recently wrote to University at Buffalo (also known as SUNY-Buffalo) President John Simpson to ask about the university residence halls' Statement of Civility, which FIRE named our Speech Code of the Month for January 2009. The Statement of Civility provides that:

Students are expected to act with civility. To be civil means to be courteous and polite or, simply put, to be mannerly.  Acts of incivility — whether verbal, written, or physical — will not be tolerated by the Residential Life community.

In an e-mail to President Simpson, Brink asked:

What is the penalty for someone who "breaks" this statement, and how does it reconcile with the First Amendment which New York State, of which SUNY is a part of, is required to respect and recognize?

On Monday, Vice President for Student Affairs Dennis Black responded to Brink's inquiry on behalf of the university, clarifying that the Statement of Civility was aspirational and could not be used to punish student speech. Moreover, Black added that the language of the Statement would be revised to make clear its aspirational nature:

The Residence Hall Civility Statement at UB should be read a declaration of the values and beliefs of the University at Buffalo residence halls. It is not intended to and does not provide grounds for disciplinary actions against any student at the University and at no time has it been used for that purpose. As appropriate, the language will be clarified in the future to ensure that this is fully understood.

This is wonderful news, and FIRE thanks Lee Brink for prompting the university to provide this clarification. We look forward to seeing the revised language.

This situation also highlights a common problem with many speech codes. Far too often, universities include, in what should be aspirational statements, language implying that students may be punished for failing to adopt the university's institutional values. In the Statement of Civility, for example, phrases such as "are expected to" and "will not be tolerated" imply that there may be disciplinary consequences for not abiding by the Statement.

This very issue arose with the California State University System's civility statement, which a federal judge held likely violated students' First Amendment rights. As part of the system's settlement with the San Francisco State University College Republicans, the system agreed to revise the policy to clarify that the civility statement was not a basis for disciplinary action. And as FIRE announced today, Penn State University has clarified that its Penn State Principles are solely aspirational after the statement was named FIRE's Speech Code of the Month for September 2008. The Principles include a statement that "I will not engage in any behaviors that compromise or demean the dignity of individuals or groups, including intimidation, stalking, harassment, discrimination, taunting, ridiculing, insulting, or acts of violence."

Penn State's admirable solution was to change the preamble to the Penn State Principles thus:

The Pennsylvania State University is a community dedicated to personal and academic excellence. The Penn State Principles were developed to embody the values that we hope our students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni possess. At the same time, the University is strongly committed to freedom of expression. Consequently, these Principles do not constitute University policy and are not intended to interfere in any way with an individual's academic or personal freedoms. We hope, however, that individuals will voluntarily endorse these common principles, thereby contributing to the traditions and scholarly heritage left by those who preceded them, and will thus leave Penn State a better place for those who follow.

The solution to this common problem is clear: if a university wishes to maintain a formal statement urging students to abide by certain institutional values—such as civility—it must use language that makes clear that such values are solely aspirational.

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