University at Buffalo Revises Unconstitutional Speech Code

July 13, 2010

In January 2009, FIRE named the University at Buffalo (also known as SUNY Buffalo) our Speech Code of the Month for a residence hall "Statement of Civility" which provided that

Students are expected to act with civility. To be civil means to be courteous and polite or, simply put, to be mannerly.  Acts of incivility whether verbal, written, or physical will not be tolerated by the Residential Life community.

Shortly after FIRE’s announcement, FIRE supporter Lee Brink wrote to Buffalo’s president John Simpson asking, "What is the penalty for someone who ‘breaks’ this statement, and how does it reconcile with the First Amendment which New York State, of which SUNY is a part, is required to respect and recognize?" The university responded by clarifying that the civility statement was aspirational and could not be used to punish student speech, and by stating that "the language will be clarified in the future to ensure that this is fully understood."

I am happy to report that this promised policy change has occurred. The updated Statement of Civility (see p. 37 of the PDF) now clearly sets forth the fact that

This civility statement is a declaration of the values and beliefs of the University at Buffalo Residence Halls and Apartments and is not intended to and does not provide grounds for disciplinary action against any student of the University.

FIRE is very pleased that the university has made this important policy change, and particularly that it seems so receptive to constructive criticism on issues of free speech. In that vein, we hope that the university will also consider changing its red-light student sexual harassment policy, which prohibits any "Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature." In reality, while unpleasant, such conduct does not constitute sexual harassment unless it is severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive; Buffalo’s blanket ban on any "verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature" is so broad that it threatens a great deal of protected speech.

FIRE is also thankful to Lee Brink for following up on our Speech Code of the Month feature with a personal e-mail to Buffalo’s president. We’d like to remind all of our supporters that these efforts are very important. Just a brief e-mail like Lee’s can make a big difference for individual rights on campus, so please help FIRE by speaking up when you hear about a policy or practice that threatens those rights.