FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for November 2009: Keene State College in New Hampshire.
Keene State’s “Statement on Sexist Language,” found in the college’s Student Handbook, states that “Keene State College will not tolerate language that is sexist and promotes negative stereotypes and demeans members of our community.” Keene State is a public university, legally bound to uphold the guarantees of the First Amendment, yet this policy blatantly prohibits constitutionally protected speech. Not only does it prohibit protected speech, but it also leaves a great deal of what we would call core protected expression—that is, the kind of political and social commentary at the heart of the First Amendment—vulnerable to punishment. Indeed, there are many serious and legitimate expressions of opinion that some would say are sexist and promote negative stereotypes. One need only recall the uproar over former Harvard University President Larry Summers’ speech suggesting that differences in aptitude might be a factor in women’s underrepresentation at the highest levels of math and science—a speech that led to his resignation from Harvard and that led the University of California to disinvite him from speaking at one of its campuses in the wake of a faculty petition stating that he “has come to symbolize gender and racial prejudice in academia.”
In the university setting—which the U.S. Supreme Court has called peculiarly the “marketplace of ideas”—the expression of different and controversial views is an essential element of the learning process. A policy like this, which chills debate by threatening to punish any expression that might be deemed “sexist,” is not only unconstitutional but also runs contrary to what a university should be. For this reason, Keene State College is our November 2009 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college or university 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 loose affiliation 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.