Congratulations to the University of Arizona (UA) for eliminating its one remaining “red light” speech code, a policy on “Civility,” from its Community Living Guide. As a result of this policy change, UA now has a “yellow light” rating from FIRE. UA’s former policy required students to be “respectful” in all of their relationships and banned “verbally,” “mentally,” or “psychologically” “abus[ing]” another person, despite the fact that speech cannot be constitutionally prohibited simply for lacking respect or being abusive.The former policy also banned “bigotry” in “verbal” and “written” form, but failed both to define the term and to recognize that much speech many would characterize as “bigoted” is nevertheless protected by the First Amendment. As a public university bound by the First Amendment, UA has served its students well by rescinding this policy.
This change comes just in time for a talk at UA on free speech to be given on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. MT by FIRE’s Peter Bonilla, Assistant Director of our Individual Rights Defense Program. In his talk, hosted by UA’s College Republicans, Peter will discuss the prevalence of speech codes on American campuses and at the University of Arizona, as well as the threat to free speech posed by increased calls for civility requirements.
It is particularly noteworthy and appropriate that UA has made the change this year, since UA is the home of the new National Institute for Civil Discourse, “a national, nonpartisan center for debate, research, education and policy generation regarding civic engagement and civility in public discourse consistent with First Amendment principles.” Indeed, government entities such as UA are free to encourage people to speak with civility or to demonstrate other moral values in their speech, but may not violate our rights by mandating that we do so or by punishing protected expression deemed “uncivil.”