FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for February 2011: Claremont McKenna College in California.
Claremont McKenna’s (CMC’s) policy on “Acceptable E-Mail Usage” provides that “[t]he College’s system must not be used to create or transmit material that is derogatory, defamatory, obscene or offensive. Such material includes, but is not limited to, slurs, epithets or anything that might be construed as harassment or disparagement based on race, color, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or religious or political beliefs.” (Emphasis added.)
This policy is truly breathtaking in its reach. You can be punished for any e-mail that might be construed as disparaging on the basis of religious or political beliefs? Or any e-mail that is found derogatory or offensive by some unspecified standard? Given that e-mail is a widely used mode of communication among college students and faculty, this policy prohibits a large amount of core political and religious expression—the kind of expression that lies at the heart of the First Amendment and that is crucial to the open debate that should characterize a prestigious college like CMC.
Although CMC is a private university, it very clearly promises to protect the free speech rights of its students and faculty. CMC’s Guide to Student Life states that “[t]he College’s commitment to freedom of speech generally, and to the particular ideals associated with academic freedom, requires that the advocacy of ideas in instruction, by both faculty and students, be protected, and requires the College to protect the rights of its faculty and students to pursue controversial, provocative, and unpopular topics and ideas in their teaching, learning, and research.” The Guide further states that “[g]uaranteeing the rights of free speech and peaceable assembly is a basic requirement for any academic community.”
This policy, which explicitly prohibits controversial political and religious expression, is a clear violation of CMC’s promise of free speech. It also appears to violate California’s Leonard Law, which requires that private nonsectarian universities refrain from punishing students for any expression that is protected by the First Amendment.
For this reason, Claremont McKenna College’s Acceptable E-Mail Usage policy is our February 2011 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 network 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.