FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for December 2008: Lone Star College in Texas.
FIRE recently addressed the suppression of free speech at one of the colleges in the Lone Star College System, when Lone Star College–Tomball censored a student group for distributing a jocular flyer listing “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips.” The flyer, which was obviously intended to be a humorous David-Letterman-style top-ten list, included entries such as “no matter how responsible he seems, never give your gun to a monkey” and “if your gun misfires, never look down the barrel to inspect it.” Despite the authors’ clearly humorous intent, the college administration invoked the Virginia Tech shootings to confiscate the flyers and threaten the group with derecognition and disciplinary action.
Now, FIRE has learned that the Lone Star College System maintains speech codes that threaten free expression at all five of the system’s campuses. The most vague and overbroad of these policies, found in the system-wide Student Code of Conduct, prohibits any “vulgar expression” on any Lone Star College campus, including in electronic communications.
Since sensibilities vary widely from person to person, the definition of what is “vulgar” depends entirely on who is hearing or viewing the expression in question. What is perfectly acceptable to one person may be vulgar to another, and without further definition, students will be left to guess at how the college might apply this policy. In order to avoid being unconstitutionally vague, the Supreme Court has held that a regulation must “give the person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly.” Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108 (1972). Since “vulgarity” is so subjective, students have no way of knowing what exactly is prohibited by this policy, making it impermissibly vague.
In addition to being vague, the policy is also overbroad because it explicitly prohibits constitutionally protected speech and expression. The majority of speech that most people would consider “vulgar” is still protected by the First Amendment. Satire and parody, for example, are two of the most ferociously protected forms of expression, and they are also frequently two of the most crude and vulgar forms of expression, using shock value to convey powerful social commentary. In Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protects even the crudest parody—in that case, a cartoon suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s first sexual experience was a drunken tryst in an outhouse with his own mother. This undoubtedly “vulgar” speech is protected by the First Amendment, and such expression likewise must be protected by Lone Star College. Even expression that is actually profane enjoys constitutional protection; in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971), the Court upheld a Vietnam War protestor’s right to walk into a courthouse wearing a jacket reading “Fuck the Draft.”
By prohibiting any expression that some unnamed person (a college administrator? the listener?) deems “vulgar,” the Lone Star College System is unlawfully violating its students’ First Amendment rights. For this reason, Lone Star College is our December 2008 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. 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.
Let LSCS General Counsel Brian S. Nelson know what you think.