FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2015: University of Denver (DU).
DU’s Student Conduct Policies contain a ban on “disrespect.” This “includes, but is not limited to” any “[b]ehaviors or acts which are discourteous, vulgar, obscene, or abusive, or which produce or attempt to produce ridicule, embarrassment, or intimidation as a result.” Although DU is private, it claims—in the very same Student Conduct Policies—to value “freedom of inquiry and expression.” But requiring all expression to be courteous and respectful completely undermines the ability of students and faculty to engage in the kind of free and open debate that should characterize a university environment.
As the Supreme Court has long recognized, freedom of expression often leads to discomfort and offense. As the Court said in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949) (internal citations omitted):
[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. There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view.
And this is not just about protecting speech of limited social importance in the broader interest of public debate. To the contrary, over the years, FIRE has seen many instances of core political speech investigated and punished on campus because it has been deemed disrespectful or offensive. A few examples:
- After holding an anti-terrorism rally at which they stepped on replicas of the Hamas and Hezbollah flags, the College Republicans at San Francisco State University were investigated for “incivility.”
- Montclair State University’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine was reprimanded and fined, and its charter threatened, for an “offensive” brochure setting out the group’s views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- Administrators at Saginaw Valley State University used an unconstitutional posting policy to censor a student’s flyers protesting that posting policy.
- A student at California Polytechnic State University was charged with disruption after he posted a flyer, advertising an upcoming campus speech by a black social critic, that others found offensive.
If students at DU are required to limit their discussions and debates to only the subjectively courteous and respectful, free speech will undoubtedly suffer as a result. Not only will students self-censor to avoid punishment, but the DU administration will have virtually free reign to crack down on expressive activities where students are communicating views that may be unpopular or offensive.
For these reasons, DU’s ban on “disrespect” is our October 2015 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe 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.