Speech Code of the Month: Dickinson College

March 27, 2017

FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for March 2017: Dickinson College in Pennsylvania.

Like many colleges and universities, Dickinson has a protocol for reporting “bias incidents.” This Orwellian phenomenon has become so widespread that FIRE recently released a report on it, surveying more than 230 bias reporting systems nationwide. As we noted in our report, these policies typically define “bias” very broadly, so these protocols often create a culture in which students are encouraged to report on one another to the administration any time someone is subjectively offended.

At Dickinson, a “bias incident” is defined as “[d]iscriminatory behavior or expression based upon sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or legally protected characteristics such as race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability or military status.” While the prohibition on discriminatory behavior is entirely legitimate, it is wholly unclear what the scope of “discriminatory expression” is.

One thing is clear, though: It includes things that, off campus, would be constitutionally protected speech.

In another section of the policy, reportable behavior is defined as “discriminatory macro- and micro-aggressions that violate our community standards.” While Dickinson is private, and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it proclaims that “students should enjoy the same freedom of speech, peaceable assembly, and right of petition that other citizens enjoy.” The college must live up to its commitment.

Although Dickinson’s Bias Education & Response Team does not seem to be institutionally involved in the discipline of students, the team includes both the Dean of Student Life, who oversees student conduct, and a representative from Dickinson’s Public Safety department — literal speech police! This is both deeply troubling and fairly common in university bias reporting systems: FIRE’s survey of bias reporting teams nationwide found that 42 percent included police or security officials, and 63 percent included student conduct administrators.

If it were not already clear that Dickinson is chilling free and open debate on campus by encouraging its students to report on one another for subjectively offensive speech, consider this: The college cautions that “[a]ny effort to dismiss the validity of the incident reports that the Team has responded to risks minimizing and invalidating the authentic experiences our students have reported.”

This is the polar opposite of the objective, “reasonable person” standard that serves as a critical aspect of fairness in many areas of the law, including harassment. Here, by contrast, anything someone subjectively feels is “authentic” must be “validated,” no matter how unreasonable or unusually sensitive that person may be.

As I noted in a recent discussion of bias reporting systems,

there is simply an unavoidable tension between encouraging free and open debate on campus and encouraging students to report any instances of subjectively biased speech to the administration. And while the current zeitgeist seems to dictate that we should resolve that tension in favor of students’ emotional comfort, doing so will only worsen the echo-chamber phenomenon that does such immeasurable harm to the kind of critical thinking and intelligent, reasoned debate that we must be able to engage in in order to address the problems we face as a society.

For this reason, Dickinson College’s bias incident reporting system is our March 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 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 the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Schools:  Dickinson College