FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for May 2015: Lake Superior State University (LSSU) in Michigan.
LSSU’s Posting Policy, found in the Student Handbook, requires that all postings be approved by the university’s Campus Life Office and provides that “[p]ostings deemed offensive, sexist, vulgar, discriminatory or suggestive will not be approved.” The potential sanctions for violating the policy include not only removal of one’s flyers, but also “disciplinary sanctioning of the individual(s) involved.”
Under this policy, students face potential disciplinary action for advertising controversial events or opinions. One need only look through FIRE’s case history to see how often people cry offense over posters intended to provoke political or social debate:
- California Polytechnic State University charged a student with “disruption” for posting a flyer advertising a College Republicans-sponsored speech by a social critic after students at the campus Multicultural Center complained that the poster was “offensive.”
- Binghamton University suspended a social work graduate student for posting flyers criticizing the department’s decision to hire the head of the Binghamton Housing Authority, an agency the student believed was responsible for social injustice.
- Colorado College found two students in violation of the school’s “violence” policy for posting a flyer satirizing a publication of the college’s Feminist and Gender Studies program.
- Gonzaga University disciplined its College Republicans chapter for posting a flyer containing the book title “Why the Left Hates America” in an advertisement for an upcoming speech by the book’s author.
- George Washington University suspended a Jewish student after he posted a small souvenir swastika purchased in India on his residence hall’s bulletin board.
- Marquette University ordered a graduate student to remove a quote by humorist Dave Barry from his office door on the grounds that the quote was “patently offensive.” The quote read, “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.”
Indeed, LSSU itself once took action against a faculty member for posting conservative political materials on his office door, despite the fact that other faculty members on the very same floor also had political postings on their doors.
If students can be punished for posting anything that someone on campus subjectively finds offensive, sexist, vulgar, or suggestive, they are likely to refrain from posting anything even remotely controversial, at the expense of free and open debate on LSSU’s campus. This viewpoint-discriminatory policy is very likely unconstitutional at a public university like LSSU and is completely inappropriate at any institution that claims to value free expression.
For these reasons, LSSU’s Posting Policy is our May 2015 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 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, join the FIRE Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.