FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for October 2006: University of Mississippi.
The University of Mississippi’s General Telephone Policy provides that, on calls made to and from campus telephones, “offensive language is not to be used. All reported incidents of anyone using offensive language is referred to the Campus Police for further action.” I’m happy to hear that Ole Miss is such a safe campus that the Campus Police have the time to take action on every incident of offensive language being used over the telephone. But the Campus Police should be aware that it is this policy—and not the use of offensive language over the telephone—that is unlawful. As a state-run university, Ole Miss is legally obligated to uphold the free speech rights guaranteed by the Constitution to its students and faculty—and this policy directly violates those rights.
There is no exception to the First Amendment for “offensive language”—in fact, that is pretty much exactly what the First Amendment exists to protect. You don’t often see people clamoring to censor language they don’t find offensive. This policy is so preposterously broad that students and faculty must necessarily censor themselves in order to comply. Think about it: who knows what your roommate, or someone walking down the hall when your door is open, will find offensive? Under this policy, telling an off-color joke, or even a story about the previous night’s activities, in front of the wrong person could mean punishment. Who would be willing to take that risk, when at any time the phone police could be knocking at your door?
When a vague policy leads people to refrain from engaging in protected speech in order to comply, the result is what courts call a “chilling effect” on freedom of speech, and it is legally impermissible. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “[b]ecause First Amendment freedoms need breathing space to survive, government may regulate in the area only with narrow specificity.” NAACP v. Button, 371 U.S. 415, 433 (1963). It is enormously understating the situation to say that a ban on “offensive language” used over the telephone lacks the required “narrow specificity” to be a valid regulation.
For this reason, the University of Mississippi is October’s 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.