Speech Code of the Month: University of Central Missouri

November 12, 2014

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for November 2014: the University of Central Missouri.

While restrictive speech codes are on the decline nationwide, the University of Central Missouri (UCM) adopted several new, unconstitutional speech codes last year—a move that earned UCM FIRE’s worst, “red light,” rating for severely restricting students’ free speech rights.

One of those new policies is found in the “Student Rights and Responsibilities” section of UCM’s Guide to Good Decision-Making (PDF). Pursuant to the “Right to Non-Discrimination, Equal Access, and Fair Treatment” (PDF), students can face unspecified consequences for constitutionally protected speech if someone else finds it subjectively “hateful” or “demeaning”:

In some cases, lively debate can lead to disagreement and misunderstanding. We expect students to develop the skills to handle such disagreements with respect and civility. … Students who engage in rhetoric or actions that demean individuals or groups are not well suited to the academic environment. Such behavior is antithetical to learning and may actually compromise the educational opportunities of others. Consequently, for the greater good of the learning community, individuals who engage in hateful rhetoric or discriminatory behaviors may be held accountable in a manner consistent with their rights as citizens under state and federal law.

This policy is bound to have disastrous consequences for free and open debate on campus. Indeed, the policy actually cites “lively debate” as a context in which a violation might occur!

It is fine for a university to encourage civil debate. Indeed, most people will quickly learn on their own that civil, reasoned argument is usually the most effective—after all, it is difficult to convince someone of your side of an argument if you have insulted and demeaned them in the process. But there will also be times when tensions are high and passions are inflamed, and students need to know that their university will protect their right to speak in heated and emotional ways about the issues that matter most to them.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides a good context for understanding how policies like UCM’s can lead directly to censorship of protected political speech. Just look, for example, at the case of Professor Steven Salaita. Earlier this year, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) revoked its offer of a tenured professorship to Salaita after Salaita posted a series of controversial Israel-related tweets to his personal Twitter account (for example: “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised? #Gaza”).

Several weeks after that decision, UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise publicly addressed the Salaita controversy. Her message paid lip service to the importance of unfettered debate, but she then wrote—as though Salaita’s speech was not part of unfettered debate:

What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.

Chancellor Wise went on to emphasize that faculty members must be able to debate in a “civil, thoughtful and mutually respectful manner.”

Chancellor Wise’s words are remarkably similar to the language of the UCM policy; both reference the need for civility and respect, as well as a ban on words that “demean.” A UCM student wishing to speak passionately about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, therefore, would rightly be concerned that the university might decide that he or she is “not well suited to the academic environment” and that he or she would be “held accountable” in whatever way the university saw fit.

UCM is a public university, legally bound to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights. It cannot limit debate on campus to only that which it judges appropriately civil and respectful. Rather, it must allow its students to engage in the full range of constitutionally protected speech and expression, which includes a great deal of speech that some might find hateful or demeaning. Given the pressure to censor that universities often come under from students themselves, it is not hard to understand why so many colleges and universities fear controversy these days. But giving in to demands for censorship only emboldens those calling for censorship to demand ever-greater restrictions on speech.

For these reasons, UCM is our November 2014 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Schools:  University of Central Missouri