FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for May 2010: Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania.
The harassment policy in Bryn Mawr’s student handbook states that “[i]t is the policy of Bryn Mawr College to maintain a work and academic environment free from discrimination and offensive or degrading remarks or conduct.” The policy also includes a list of “specific examples of behavior that are inappropriate” including “[n]egative or offensive comments, jokes or suggestions about another employee’s gender or sexuality, ethnicity or religion.” (While the language here refers to employees, the policy explicitly states that it applies to “all staff members and faculty members as well as students.”)
Bryn Mawr’s sweeping prohibition on any “negative or offensive comments” about gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and religion leaves students open to punishment for expressing their opinions on a wide range of topics that should be discussed openly at an institution like Bryn Mawr. To take just one example, many people have recently expressed strong feelings about the Catholic Church’s response to the priest sex abuse scandal. If such remarks offended a Catholic student at Bryn Mawr, the student or faculty member who made them could be charged with harassment for making negative comments about a particular religion. The suppression of controversial speech is shameful at a college which claims that a “climate of open and vigorous debate” is “essential to its educational mission.” One cannot have “open and vigorous debate” when “negative comments” are punishable.
Frequently, when FIRE points out the reach of a policy like this, university administrators and/or students respond that, despite a policy’s written language, such an application would never actually happen. (For an example, read about our debate with Rice University students and administrators here.) All this means, however, is that the policy is being unevenly enforced, and that students’ right to free speech exists only at the whim of the university administration—an insecure situation to say the least, and one that has a powerful chilling effect on campus expression.
For these reasons, Bryn Mawr College is our May 2010 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 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.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 these issues, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, a loose affiliation of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. And if you would like to help fight abuses at universities nationwide, add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog, website, or Facebook profile and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.