FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for April 2011: The University of Florida.
According to the University of Florida’s (UF’s) Student Rights and Responsibilities policy, “Organizations or individuals that adversely upset the delicate balance of communal living will be subject to disciplinary action by the University.” Come again? If there has ever been a textbook illustration of unconstitutional vagueness, this policy is it. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that laws must “give a person of ordinary intelligence a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited, so that he may act accordingly,” or else they are unconstitutionally vague. Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 108-09 (1972). If you were a student at UF, would you have any idea what might “adversely upset the delicate balance of communal living”? I certainly wouldn’t. That’s a problem for speech on campus because it forces students to guess at what speech might qualify as sufficiently “upsetting” to warrant punishment. In light of this uncertainty, many students will decide it’s best just to keep their mouths shut—the very definition of a chilling effect on speech.
This policy also reeks of the paternalistic attitude too prevalent among college administrators. Discipline for anyone who upsets the “delicate balance of communal living” among a group of adults? Policies like this one send a powerful message that students are too weak to live with freedom, and that the appropriate response to even the most minor offense is to run to the administration instead of directly confronting and responding to those who give offense by their words or actions. Twenty-year-olds who, instead of enrolling in college, enter the workforce and rent a house with a group of other people must negotiate the “delicate balance of communal living” without assistance from Big Brother, and twenty-year-old college students are capable of doing so as well.
This vague policy gives the University of Florida—a public university required to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights—unfettered discretion to punish students for constitutionally protected expression, and exemplifies the worst of an in loco parentis relationship that is wholly inappropriate between a college administration and its adult students. For this reason, this policy is our April 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 email@example.com 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 these issues, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, a network of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. 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.