It’s probably not such a happy Halloween at Troy University in Alabama. As you may have seen:
MONTGOMERY, Ala., October 31, 2005—Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) targeted the fifth university in its highly successful Speech Code Litigation project.
Attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Troy University in Alabama for violating the First Amendment by maintaining a restrictive speech code and censoring student artwork. FIRE’s continued effort to systematically demolish unconstitutional campus speech restrictions has already tasted victory at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Texas Tech University, the State University of New York at Brockport, and California’s Citrus College.
FIRE Legal Network attorneys Jim Parkman and William White of Parkman, Adams, and White in Dothan, Ala., with assistance from Gabriel Sterling of Troutman Sanders LLP in Washington, D.C., filed the lawsuit on behalf of Blake Dews, a senior art major at Troy’s main campus.
The case involves a student whose non-obscene art was censored as well as a comically overbroad speech code.
The code effectively prohibits “jokes, or other verbal, graphic, or physical conduct relating to” characteristics including “age” and “religion,” as well as “derogatory or demeaning comments about gender, whether sexual or not,” “gossip,” or “suggestive” and “insulting” comments, “indecent” expression or the “[u]se of the mail, telephone, computer and electronic messages, or any other means of communication to insult…or demean another.”
Some days I love my job; other days I find it exhausting to have to keep repeating myself. Do we really have to explain again that a public institution bound by the First Amendment cannot ban any language people deem rude or inappropriate? Yes, politeness is a virtue, but thankfully it is not the law. Imagine a society where you were not free to say anything that could be construed as “insulting” or “demeaning” to any person—you could be confident that your speech was safe only if you were pleasantly agreeing with everyone else. The minute you wanted to say something important or dissent you would reasonably have to fear that you were breaking the law. If we were offered this choice, would many of us choose to say anything important at all?
Fortunately, the law is not so murky. Troy University’s code is contrary to the basic function the First Amendment and (please forgive the obligatory bad Halloween joke, but) it doesn’t stand a ghost of chance in court.