FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for May 2014: Wake Forest University.
Wake Forest’s policy on “Campus Posting” (PDF) explicitly restricts student postings on the basis of their viewpoint and has the potential to significantly impact political speech on campus. Specifically, the policy provides:
All signs/posters/flyers displayed on campus must be in good taste, consistent with University policies, and must not contain sexist, racist, profane or derogatory remarks, or nudity.
Moreover, while most university posting policies simply allow for the removal of prohibited posters, Wake Forest’s goes much further, providing that “[v]iolators may be subject to fines and/or disciplinary procedures.”
Student organizations frequently advertise upcoming campus events and speakers by posting flyers. Not infrequently, those events and speakers may be politically unpopular or even controversial. By prohibiting—on pain of punishment, no less—any flyers subjectively deemed “sexist,” “racist,” “derogatory,” or not in “good taste,” the university places a heavy burden on students wishing to express controversial political or social opinions on campus.
If you doubt for even a minute that a university might deem students’ political or social commentary subjectively offensive, just look back at a few examples from FIRE’s case archives:
- At Colorado College, two male students were found responsible for violating the school’s “violence” policy for posting a flyer that parodied a flyer from the Feminist and Gender Studies program.
- Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) in Michigan refused to approve a student’s flyer reading “Fuck Censorship, Fuck Oppression, Fuck the Draft. Fight for Free Speech and Political Expression at SVSU and Elsewhere”—a flyer specifically created to protest an unconstitutional SVSU posting policy banning posters containing (among other things) “profanity.”
- Lone Star College threatened to derecognize its Young Conservatives of Texas student group for posting a recruitment flyer containing a satirical list of “Top Ten Gun Safety Tips.”
Under Wake Forest’s posting policy, students could face fines or discipline for posting these or any other controversial flyers.
While Wake Forest is private and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it claims (PDF) to “honor[ ] the ideals of liberal learning” and to encourage students to “attempt to understand and appreciate the perspectives of others” and “pursue truth.” But to punish student expression simply because another person finds it to be sexist, racist, or derogatory is to dishonor the ideals of liberal learning by denying students the opportunity to encounter and challenge ideas and opinions with which they disagree. It may be temporarily more pleasant to live in an echo chamber, but the tradeoff is that one never learns the critical thinking and argumentation skills necessary to be an effective advocate for one’s own views.
By maintaining this viewpoint-based prohibition on student expression, Wake Forest is betraying the ideals it claims to value and doing its students a terrible disservice in the process.
For these reasons, Wake Forest University is our May 2014 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 Student Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.