FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for November 2017: California State University, East Bay.
The stated purpose of CSU East Bay’s “Temporary Exterior Signs and Postings Policy” is to prevent the posting of “content that may be deemed offensive to members of the campus community and visitors to the campus.” To that end, the policy requires that both the “content and placement” of flyers posted by students and student groups be approved by CSU East Bay staff. Regarding acceptable content, the only guidance offered is that “[i]n general, content for postings shall be limited to announcing an event or activity.”
But as we regularly see on campuses around the country, flyers advertising events promoting unpopular or controversial viewpoints are frequently deemed “offensive” by would-be censors.
Earlier this week, for example, students at the University of Florida vandalized flyers advertising a pro-life event organized by the university’s chapter of Young Americans for Freedom. One of the vandals bragged about his actions to the student group’s leader on Facebook: “Just poured water on your lovely creations, which are an insult to my entire major and life experiences!”
Last fall, a student at UC Irvine was caught on video taking down flyers advertising an upcoming talk by Christina Hoff Sommers entitled “Where Feminism Went Wrong.” When asked why she was taking down the flyers, the student replied, “It’s offensive.”
Indeed, offended students have torn down flyers at numerous institutions in the past year alone, including at Columbia University, Portland State University, the University of California, Irvine, and the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. And at countless other institutions, administrators have censored or punished student or student organizations for flyers that someone found subjectively offensive.
CSU East Bay’s posting policy, which explicitly conditions the permissibility of event advertisements on whether or not they are “offensive,” is a recipe for the censorship of unpopular views on political and social issues — censorship that is incompatible with CSU East Bay’s obligation, as a public university, to uphold the First Amendment. The policy also cannot be squared with CSU East Bay’s self-description as “an institution that recognizes unfettered freedom in the give and take of ideas and opinions.” Expression — particularly on important political and social issues — frequently offends those who disagree with it. Some people find the Black Lives Matter movement’s characterization of police offensive; others find slogans such as “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” equally offensive. Some find flyers promoting gun rights offensive; others find flyers demanding stricter gun control equally offensive. If college administrators in the 1960s had to decide what student flyers were and were not offensive, would students have been able to advocate in favor of desegregation and civil rights? In order to protect the right of everyone to advocate for the causes they believe in and the ideas that are important to them, we cannot allow others’ subjective offense to dictate what can and cannot be said, on campus and beyond.
For this reason, CSU East Bay is our November 2017 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 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 free speech, consider joining the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.