Speech Code of the Month: Centre College

June 5, 2012

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for June 2012: Centre College in Kentucky. Although it is a private institution, Centre’s Bill of Student Rights promises

The right of every student to exercise his/her full rights as a citizen in forming and participating in campus, local, national, or international organizations for intellectual, religious, social, political, economic, or cultural purposes, and to publish and/or determine his/her views and those of his/her organization on campus.

Fundamental to one’s rights as a citizen is the right to free speech, including—perhaps most crucially—the right to criticize one’s leaders. But at Centre, that right is seriously curtailed by the college’s prohibition on “disrespect for a college official,” which is defined broadly to include anything “not showing due respect.” This vague policy could subject a student to punishment for almost any comment or criticism that an administrator subjectively deems disrespectful.

Our concern over this policy is anything but hypothetical. Over the years, FIRE has seen many universities apply their speech codes to suppress student criticism of their administrations. To take just a few recent examples:

  • This past fall, a student at Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) posted comments on CVCC’s Facebook page harshly criticizing the college’s partnership with a debit card company. Until FIRE intervened, CVCC suspended the student for two semesters for violating a prohibition on any “offense which, in the opinion of the administration or faculty, may be contrary to the best interest of the CVCC community.”
  • Last spring, St. Augustine’s College refused to allow a student to participate in its graduation ceremonies due to a comment he posted on Facebook about how the college was handling its recovery from tornado damage.
  • In 2008, Michigan State University used its spam policy to punish a student government leader who emailed a select group of faculty criticizing the administration’s plan to change the university’s academic calendar.

The right to free speech, if it is to be meaningful, includes speech that is not civil or respectful. To quote the U.S. Supreme Court, “[s]peech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.” Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949).

If Centre is going to allow its students to exercise their “full rights as a citizen,” it must allow them to be critical of the administration, even harshly so. This policy, which is backed by the explicit threat of action, chills student expression on important issues and is impermissible at any institution that claims to value the right to free speech. For this reason, it is our June 2012 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 Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month Widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.

Schools:  Centre College