FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for December 2013: Virginia State University.
According to Virginia State’s Student Code of Conduct (PDF), “[s]tudents shall not injure, harass, threaten, offend, or degrade a member of the University community” (emphasis added). Any violation of this provision “is subject to disciplinary sanctions including, but not limited to warning, probation, loss of privileges, fines, restitution, residence hall suspension, residence hall expulsion, Virginia State University suspension, and Virginia State University expulsion.”
So here we have a public university, legally bound by the First Amendment, threatening to expel students if they “offend” another student on campus. Do you support affirmative action, or gay marriage, or the right to an abortion? Do you perhaps oppose them? At Virginia State, it doesn’t matter, since chances aresomeone will be offended no matter what opinion you hold.
This result is such a clear violation of decades of legal precedent that it is hard to imagine anyone signing off on such a policy. As the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989). The Supreme Court has even addressed this issue specifically with respect to public colleges and universities, ruling that “the 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).
These rulings could not be clearer, yet Virginia State is prohibiting exactly what the Court has held sacrosanct: the right to express one’s opinions even if those opinions offend others. This policy is so blatantly unconstitutional that there truly is not much more to say about it, other than that the university must revise it immediately. For this reason, Virginia State University is our December 2013 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 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, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You can also add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.