FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for September 2009: the University of Idaho.
In the University of Idaho’s residence halls, “Actions and/or communication that are discriminatory, harassing or insensitive are not permitted.” (Emphasis added.) This policy prohibits a staggering amount of constitutionally protected speech. In fact, this policy prohibits precisely the speech that the First Amendment exists to protect, since people typically do not seek to censor sensitive, respectful expression. Moving beyond the legal issues, speech codes like this one infantilize college students by assuming they cannot cope with any sort of offense. Do we really want to teach our students that they are entitled to seek punishment for others’ insensitivity? Perhaps in a small city like Moscow, Idaho, students don’t have to deal with much insensitivity on a daily basis, but should they choose to expand their horizons (say, to Philadelphia, for example), they would encounter plenty. And I think it’s safe to say a Philly cop would have a good, long laugh if you asked him or her to arrest a fellow Philadelphian for hurting your feelings.
In addition to showing grave disrespect for its students’ expressive rights, the University of Idaho also risks a First Amendment lawsuit by maintaining this policy. Speech codes have been successfully challenged elsewhere in the Ninth Circuit (at San Francisco State University last year and the Los Angeles Community College District just this summer), and to say that Idaho’s policy is laughably unconstitutional is an understatement. For these reasons, the University of Idaho is our September 2009 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college or university should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail 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 these issues, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, a loose affiliation 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.