FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for December 2011: St. Olaf College in Minnesota.
St. Olaf’s policy on “Misuse of Computers” [.pdf] prohibits “creating or posting of material that is offensive,” stating that such actions “are subject to disciplinary review.” As is typical of such policies, “offensive” is left undefined, and there is no provision for who decides what is offensive, leaving students with no way of knowing whether their electronic communications might get them in trouble. Is a pointed criticism of the university offensive? What about a provocative editorial about Islamic fundamentalism? These types of expression have gotten students in trouble at other universities, and with such a vague and broad prohibition in place, St. Olaf students are almost certain to engage in self-censorship rather than risk punishment, chilling free and open discourse on campus.
Although St. Olaf is private, its Student Handbook repeatedly emphasizes the importance of free speech and expression. Among other things, the Handbook states that “[f]ree inquiry and free expression are essential attributes of the community of scholars” and that “St. Olaf College affirms its belief in the importance of freedom of expression.” But freedom to offend is at the core of freedom of expression-after all, calls for censorship almost always emanate from those who are offended. As the U.S. Supreme Court has said, “[s]peech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest.” Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949).
By trying to limit electronic discourse to only that which is inoffensive, St. Olaf College has seriously restricted the right to free expression that it claims to protect. For this reason, it is our December 2011 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, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, an organization 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.