An editorial in Wednesday’s edition of The Traveler, the University of Arkansas’ (UA’s) student newspaper, reported that some members of the paper’s editorial staff reacted to the school’s “red light” ranking in FIRE’s “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” with little more than an “apathetic shrug.”
The reason for the indifference was not that the student editors don’t care about UA’s unconstitutional policies concerning speech. They do. As they describe themselves, The Traveler’s staff is a “terribly proud group, always ready to thrust our flaming pens of truth into the air and cry ‘injustice!’”
Rather, the editorial staff explained, it’s just that the paper has unfortunately gotten very used to censorship on campus. The editorial pointed out that “[o]ver the years, the Traveler staff has become inured to the occasional attacks from the administration and student groups, demanding the paper’s speech be … restricted.” And despite a mealy-mouthed “commitment to free speech” offered by William Kincaid, Associate General Counsel for the university, The Traveler’s editorial staff said it took just “a two-second brainstorming session” before the staff thought of other examples of student speech being unfairly and unconstitutionally squelched or quarantined at UA.
What a wretched state our nation’s public universities are in when students are no longer the least bit shocked by the fact that they don’t enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment on campus. Has it come to this? Unfortunately, a quick perusal of some of the school’s current policies indicates that it has indeed. For example, UA students are forbidden from using the internet to “annoy, harass, threaten, intimidate, terrify, or offend another person by conveying offensive language.” Of course, as any reader of The Torch well knows, the vast majority of “offensive language” is protected by the First Amendment, rendering this regulation void for overbreadth—and that’s without even mentioning that the intensely subjective nature of what speech can be deemed “offensive” means the rule is equally void for vagueness.
Like too many of their counterparts across the nation, UA’s administrators would be well-advised to rewrite their policies immediately to bring them in line with the Constitution, by which they are both legally and morally bound. (Before they do, they might want to check out FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus, just to refresh their memories about this whole “First Amendment” thing.)
But UA students should be equally proactive. Instead of merely shrugging, why not mount a constitutional challenge to these policies in district court? Heck, we know a few good lawyers. And just think how great “Helped repeal unconstitutional speech codes” would look on your law school application.