FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for February 2010: Westfield State College in Massachusetts.
Westfield’s Student Handbook prohibits “discrimination,” which it defines to include “making disparaging remarks that insult or stigmatize a student’s cultural background or race” as well as “making insensitive remarks that reflect a student’s disability.” Westfield State College is a public university, bound to protect its students’ First Amendment right to free speech. The college recognizes this fact elsewhere in its policies, clearly stating that “Westfield State College recognizes that the student, as an adult member of society and a citizen of the United States of America, is entitled to respect and consideration and has the right to the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech, assembly and association.” The non-discrimination policy, however, completely ignores this obligation, explicitly prohibiting large amounts of protected speech.
Even more troubling is the fact that the policy, on its face, applies to core political expression. For example, an argument against the stringent requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act—particularly if it is harshly worded—might sound “insensitive” to disabled students on campus. Or, to take an example of an actual case from the University of Alaska, a discussion of child sexual abuse in Native Alaskan communities might offend students who feel that the discussion insults or stigmatizes their cultural background.
Controversial expression about important political and social issues is at the very heart of what the First Amendment exists to protect, so a policy like this, with its threat of punishment for just those types of expression, is particularly noxious. For this reason, Westfield State College is our February 2010 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.