Speech Code of the Month: Stevens Institute of Technology

December 1, 2005

FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for December 2005: Stevens Institute of Technology.

Although Stevens is a private institution, it promises its students “[t]he constitutional rights of freedom of expression and assembly” and “the right of freedom to hear and participate in dialogue and to examine diverse views and ideas.” Unfortunately, Stevens maintains a sexual harassment policy that strips students of the very rights it promises.

Stevens’ policy goes into great detail about the various types of speech it bans. It bans “sexual/sexist jokes,” “comments regarding a person’s attire, body or reputation,” “propositions,” “offensive sexual flirtations,” and “displaying or discussing materials pertaining to males or females in a demeaning manner.”

Just in case you say you were just trying to be funny, Stevens’ policy provides that all of this speech constitutes harassment “even if done in the guise of humor.” And lest you say that your “propositions” were very polite and respectful, Stevens wants you to know that all of this speech constitutes harassment “regardless of how conducted or communicated.” Woe to the student who asks the wrong person for a date at Stevens!

Perhaps most dangerous is the ban on discussing “materials pertaining to males or females in a demeaning manner.” This prohibition is both vague and overbroad, and it is likely to have a profound chilling effect on student expression in the classroom. Stevens offers multiple gender-related classes including “Psychology of Gender,” “Women and Gender in American History,” and “Philosophy and Feminism.” In discussing the sensitive gender-related issues inevitably raised in these classes, how is a student to know what another student might find “demeaning”?

The answer is that students do not know, and thus will censor themselves in an effort to avoid punishment. At a public school, this would not pass constitutional muster. At Stevens, it is a moral outrage, and quite possibly an unlawful violation of the promise of freedom of expression contained in the Student Handbook.

For these reasons, Stevens Institute of Technology is our December 2005 Speech Code of the Month.

If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code.

Schools:  Stevens Institute of Technology