FIRE recently wrote a letter to John Churchill, secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, in which we ask the organization to stand behind its stated commitment to freedom of expression by addressing the issue of repressive speech codes at its member institutions. In a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), Churchill responded that although Phi Beta Kappa is “interested in freedom of inquiry and freedom of expression,” the society does not "undertake that kind of investigative activity.”
Apparently, the society has the resources to conduct a “rigorous three-year review” of prospective member institutions that includes a preliminary application, a detailed report, and a campus visit, but it does not have the resources to conduct the brief Internet searches that uncover these speech codes. Nearly all of these policies are in plain sight on universities’ websites—no “investigative activity” required. For example, by doing a mere half-hour of Internet research, I found the following policies at Phi Beta Kappa member institutions:
- Auburn University prohibits “jokes…relating to a student’s race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age and disability.” That policy is publicly available on Auburn’s website.
- The University of Connecticut prohibits “disrespectful behavior.” That policy is publicly available on UConn’s website.
- The University of Delaware prohibits “[d]isplaying sexually suggestive objects or pictures.” That policy is publicly available on Delaware’s website.
- Florida State University prohibits “unwanted, unwelcome, inappropriate, or irrelevant sexual or gender-based activities or comments.” That policy is publicly available on FSU’s website.
Moreover, all the policies highlighted in FIRE’s letter to Phi Beta Kappa are readily available online. Given Phi Beta Kappa’s intensive membership application process, it is hard to believe that the minimal research necessary to uncover blatant censorship and repression would really be such a hardship to the society. So what’s really holding it back?