Speech Code of the Month: University of Central Missouri

June 26, 2018

FIRE announces our Speech Code of the Month for June 2018: the University of Central Missouri.

This is the second time a UCM policy has been named FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month. Back in November 2014, we highlighted a portion of UCM’s Student Rights & Responsibilities policy that prohibits subjectively “hateful” rhetoric and suggests that students whose rhetoric “demean[s]” others “are not well suited to the academic environment.” As we wrote at the time:

This policy is bound to have disastrous consequences for free and open debate on campus. Indeed, the policy actually cites “lively debate” as a context in which a violation might occur!

It is fine for a university to encourage civil debate. Indeed, most people will quickly learn on their own that civil, reasoned argument is usually the most effective—after all, it is difficult to convince someone of your side of an argument if you have insulted and demeaned them in the process. But there will also be times when tensions are high and passions are inflamed, and students need to know that their university will protect their right to speak in heated and emotional ways about the issues that matter most to them.

Nearly four years later, that policy remains in effect, and it is far from the only policy threatening free speech at UCM.

This month, we highlight our concern with the university’s “Campus Posting Procedure,” which — like the policy we just discussed — attempts to limit speech and expression at UCM to only the mild and milquetoast.  

According to the Campus Posting Procedure, the university will provide bulletin boards on which student organizations can advertise their upcoming events, meetings, etc. — but only if those advertisements are not “offensive” or “inflammatory.” The problem is, if you are a student group dedicated to advocating for a particular point of view, you may want to be inflammatory. And, under the case law interpreting the First Amendment, that is your right. As the Supreme Court wrote in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949):

[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech 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.

Furthermore, a public university like UCM cannot prohibit expression simply because it is offensive: “[T]he mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’” Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973).

FIRE has seen too many cases to count in which students, faculty, or administrators have attempted to suppress someone’s constitutionally protected expression on the grounds that it was offensive or inflammatory. There are good arguments for civility and moderation in our discussion of important issues, and the leadership of universities are free to make those arguments. But they are not free to censor speech simply because it does not meet their subjective definition of civility or inoffensiveness.

For this reason, UCM’s Campus Posting Procedure is our June 2018 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 speechcodes@thefire.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 the FIRE Student Network, a coalition of college students and faculty members dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.

Fill out the form below to tell UCM to revise this policy today!

Schools:  University of Central Missouri