Universities on the Cusp of a Better Speech Code Rating, Part 4: Centre College

September 16, 2013

As FIRE wraps up our annual review of university speech codes for our upcoming speech code report, we are running a blog series about colleges and universities that are just one policy away from dropping their poor, “red light,” speech code ratings. If these universities revise their red light policies before our data collection period ends on September 30, they will earn an improved speech code rating in this year’s report. Today’s featured school is Centre College. Centre College’s Student Conduct Regulations (PDF) prohibit, under threat of “disciplinary action,” “not showing due respect” for a college official. This vague and overbroad policy casts a severe chill on students’ ability to criticize the college administration, since any criticism could be deemed a failure to show due respect. While Centre is private, and thus not legally bound by the First Amendment, it promises to protect “those conditions which are indispensable to the full achievement of the objectives of higher education in a free democratic society,” including [t]he right of every student to exercise his/her full rights as a citizen in forming and participating in campus, local, national, or international organizations for intellectual, religious, social, political, economic, or cultural purposes, and to publish and/or determine his/her views and those of his/her organization on campus. FIRE has criticized this policy in the past, even naming it our Speech Code of the Month in June 2012. As we wrote at the time: If Centre is going to allow its students to exercise their “full rights as a citizen,” it must allow them to be critical of the administration, even harshly so. This policy, which is backed by the explicit threat of action, chills student expression on important issues and is impermissible at any institution that claims to value the right to free speech. While Centre has thus far been reluctant to change its speech code, we hope that perhaps the incentive of having an improved rating in this year’s speech code report will change its mind.