FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2010: Grambling State University.
Grambling State University (GSU) has an e-mail policy that bans “the creation or distribution of any disruptive or offensive messages, including offensive comments about race, gender, hair color, disabilities, age, sexual orientation, pornography, religious beliefs and practice, political beliefs, or national origin.” GSU employees who receive any such e-mails from other employees are instructed to “report the matter to their supervisor immediately.” This policy betrays any sense of a free marketplace of ideas at GSU, as FIRE explained on October 1 in a letter to GSU President Frank G. Pogue.
First, this policy relies on impermissibly vague and overbroad formulations—namely, prohibiting “disruptive” or “offensive” speech—that could, in application, mean virtually anything. Exactly what “offensive” speech violates this policy can only be determined by an entirely subjective judgment. Thus, no student or faculty member seeking to ascertain precisely what speech is or is not forbidden could possibly determine what is actually prohibited. How could any faculty member feel safe discussing controversial matters of race, gender, religion, politics, and so on–involving some of the hottest debates in society today–if anyone could claim to be offended? Who would risk possible disciplinary action? It’s easier just to keep quiet, after all. However, this chilling effect violates the First Amendment.
Even if a student or faculty member could determine what speech is or is not “disruptive” or “offensive,” the fact that someone could be sanctioned for such expression means that engaging in wide swaths of constitutionally protected expression may serve as grounds for punishment. Most speech that a listener would find offensive is nonetheless constitutionally protected—and much of it is quite educational. As I wrote last year, “Students and Professors, Please Keep Offending Each Other! Your Education Depends on It.”
Second, GSU’s policy also broadly prohibits “joke emails.” Yet, many types of jokes—including parody and satire—exist precisely to challenge, to amuse, and even to offend. Such speech is unambiguously protected under the First Amendment, which GSU, a public university, is morally and legally obligated to uphold.
Not only does GSU’s policy threaten punishment for protected forms of expression, in violation of the First Amendment, but as formulated, this policy cannot help but have the effect of eliminating the discussion of controversial topics. This is why GSU is FIRE’s October 2010 Speech Code of the Month. We hope that GSU will spare itself the continued embarrassment of fighting against the Bill of Rights by immediately revising its policy.
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 free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, which consists 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.