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USF St. Petersburg Student Newspaper Sparks Speech Code Debate

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg (USFSP) student newspaper The Crow’s Nest has been working hard to inform the campus community about why the university’s speech codes should be revised in order to protect students’ First Amendment rights. In response, students and administrators have debated the pros and cons of the speech codes. Now it’s time for the USFSP administration to take concrete steps to uphold freedom of speech on campus.

The Crow’s Nest’s excellent coverage of the issue includes an editorial published in November, which argues that USFSP students cannot wait until they have personally been censored before insisting that their rights be codified by the university:

We need policies that will protect the free speech of anyone on campus. The codes we have now are vague, and if applied directly, students could be punished for constitutionally-protected speech.  They haven’t been abused because we have an administration who wants to protect our free speech. But what happens when someone who doesn’t value free speech gets an administrative position?

Further, the editorial explains, students may “have an aversion to sex jokes” or other speech that can make them uncomfortable, but the vast majority of such speech is protected under the First Amendment. Instead of censorship, The Crow’s Nest argues that dialogue is the answer:

But the constitution doesn’t afford us immunity from these things. Yes, physical harassment should and must be addressed by the university. But we can’t ask the university to take action against a student when we hear something we don’t like.

In the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

A week later, FIRE’s Azhar Majeed spoke with The Crow’s Nest about the university’s speech codes, reiterating those points. For example, USFSP maintains a provision stating that students have “the right of respect for personal feelings, freedom from indignity, and to expect an education of the highest quality.” But as Azhar noted, “no one has the right to have freedom from indignity.”

According to The Crow’s Nest, Dean of Students Jacob Diaz stated that he wants to uphold students’ freedom of speech, but defended some of the school’s codes. For example, Diaz suggested that students wouldn’t actually be punished for sexually-oriented jokes, despite the fact that they are listed as an example of prohibited conduct in USFSP’s harassment policy. He further argued that the “indignity” language “isn’t necessarily a policy that we could be in violation of.” But that’s not what the language will look like to students, who will likely (and understandably) self-censor in order to avoid punishment. This is an unacceptable result at a public university bound by the First Amendment.

On November 18, the community met to discuss USFSP’s speech codes in depth. The Crow’s Nest relayed the outcome:

After an hour of deliberation, the widely held belief seemed to be that while upholding these policies on campus clashed with the [F]irst [A]mendment, they could minimize conflict and hold people accountable for offensive behavior.

If the paper’s sense of the room is right, it is troubling that any students would approve of the policy despite the fact that it violated their First Amendment rights. The Crow’s Nest reported that students who opposed revising the speech codes also felt they were necessary to keep students safe from “hurtful words.” However, as FIRE and other free speech advocates have argued numerous times, the desire for “emotional safety”—as opposed to physical safety—cannot trump the goal of free expression and open debate on college campuses. With respect to many important topics, it is difficult, if not impossible, to learn and exchange ideas with others without being made uncomfortable.

FIRE commends The Crow’s Nest for advocating for freedom of speech, and we hope to see USFSP follow in the footsteps of the University of Florida to earn a “green light” rating in FIRE’s Spotlight database.

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