Each month, FIRE singles out a particularly reprehensible campus speech code for our Speech Code of the Month designation. While all of 2014’s Speech Codes of the Month flagrantly violated students’ or faculty members’ right to free expression, two of them were so egregious that they deserve special mention as 2014’s Speech Codes of the Year.
University of Richmond
The University of Richmond’s Standards of Student Conduct (PDF) prohibit “disruption,” which includes, among other things, “inappropriate behavior or expression.” This extraordinarily broad and vague prohibition gives the university administration total discretion to punish virtually any speech that another person subjectively finds “inappropriate.” In other words, no speech is safe from punishment at Richmond.
Pennsylvania State University
This year, Penn State adopted a restrictive new definition of sexual harassment: “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is unwanted, inappropriate, or unconsented to.”
This policy change is part of an alarming trend prompted by guidance from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). In May 2013, OCR entered into an agreement with the University of Montana that it called a “blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country to protect students from sexual harassment and assault.” In this agreement, OCR defined sexual misconduct as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature,” including “verbal conduct” (i.e., speech). Since that time, a number of schools, fearing a loss of federal funding, have adopted policies that use this unconstitutionally overbroad definition of sexual harassment. FIRE expects that this trend will continue in the absence of crystal-clear guidance from OCR to the contrary. This distressing development threatens to reverse years of progress towards fewer campus speech codes.
Since FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month became a regular feature in June 2005, 60 colleges and universities have revised the policies that earned them this dubious distinction, including (so far) four schools named Speech Code of the Month in 2014. We hope that in 2015, more universities—including those named here—will make the changes necessary to give their students and professors the freedom they deserve.
Happy holidays, and look for 2015’s first Speech Code of the Month in January!