What Donald Trump Taught Me About Incivility

July 19, 2016

Do the words “Donald Trump” and “civility” belong in the same sentence?

Regardless of your feelings about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, it seems safe to say that Trump has not made the topic of civility a cornerstone of his campaign. Quite to the contrary, I’ve seen firsthand the incivility a Trump appearance can provoke—from both his supporters and his detractors. But when Trump made a campaign stop near my school, the University of Pittsburgh (Pitt), in April, an odd dichotomy presented itself:Donald Trump may not have been bound by any civility codes at his rallies, but as a Pitt student, I was.

When I heard that Trump was campaigning in southwestern Pennsylvania, I decided check it out. For better or worse, Trump is changing politics as we know it. I wanted to be at the center of the storm and see for myself—not just through the lens of the 24-hour news networks—what it is like when Trump comes to town. His first appearance of the day was at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in the center of Oakland, the neighborhood in which Pitt is located. His town hall event started at 5:30 p.m., but people started lining up, and protesters came out in force, several hours beforehand. It was then and there that I received an important civics lesson with regards to the First Amendment.

The atmosphere was tense. A sizeable group of Trump supporters—many of them donning those signature red “Make America Great Again” hats—were surrounded and outnumbered by bands of animated anti-Trump protesters. Several posters from the anti-Trump camp were laced with profanity, and words like “fascist” and “racist” were thrown around at both the Trump fans and the abstract idea of a Trump presidency. Many of the Trump faithful were wearing shirts that read: “Hillary Sucks, But Not Like Monica!,” in a nod to the scandal that rocked the Clinton administration almost two decades ago. Many times, Trump supporters yelled “Go get a job, Commie!” at the demonstrators, even though it was abundantly clear that neither the Trump supporters nor the anti-Trump protesters had any way of knowing who might or might not be employed. In short, goodwill was nowhere to be found. It was a patently uncivil environment. For better or for worse, such an environment is a customary part of American democratic politics (and more or less always has been).

While everything I heard that day was protected by the First Amendment, these kinds of statements are grounds for punishment on Pitt’s campus. Comments like the ones I heard coming from both sides at the rally likely violate my university’s “Commitment to Civility.”

Although courts have repeatedly ruled that speech codes are unconstitutional at public universities, an appalling 95.5 percent of public colleges and universities surveyed by FIRE nevertheless maintain such policies. Pitt itself is a “yellow light” school according to FIRE’s Spotlight rating system because of three ambiguous policies, including the civility code, that too easily encourage administrative abuse and arbitrary application. The Commitment to Civility, in particular, requires students to “behave in ways that contribute to a civil campus environment” and to “embrace the concept of a civil community.” From my reading, it’s unclear if this promise applies to off-campus behavior as well. As an eyewitness to the events of April 13, I can attest to the fact that hundreds of Pitt students in attendance were not adhering to those strictures. And if Pitt unambiguously enforced its own rules, many of those students would have been subject to administrative discipline.

It wouldn’t be the first time a university has used “civility” as a means of punishing student speech.

In 2007, San Francisco State University used its own civility code to suppress constitutionally protected speech when members of the university’s College Republicans group stepped on the flags of Hamas and Hezbollah during an anti-terrorism rally. When the university attempted to punish them for their speech, the College Republicans sued the school with the help of FIRE’s Speech Code Litigation Project. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California struck down the code as overbroad, and ruled that “the word ‘civil’ is broad and elastic—and its reach is unpredictably variable in the eyes of different speakers” and that the code “will inhibit or deter use of the forms and means of communication that, to many speakers in circumstances of the greatest First Amendment sensitivity, will be the most valued and the most effective.” Considering this ruling, I would advise Pitt to take another look at its own code and make sure it does not run afoul of legal precedent.

The Supreme Court has ruled again and again over the last several decades in cases like Widmar v. Vincent (1981) and Healy v. James (1972) that students at public universities enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. Rules like Pitt’s Commitment to Civility undermine students’ constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, as they lower the threshold of what constitutes unprotected speech from what the Court has determined. Justice William O. Douglas put it best in 1949 when he delivered the Court’s opinion in Terminiello v. Chicago, writing, “[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” If the University of Pittsburgh’s administration had its way, important speech such as this would be absent from my college experience and both Trump supporters and protesters at Pitt would have been reprimanded.

Thankfully, Pitt did not enforce its own rules, and allowed arguably “uncivil” behavior go unpunished. The administration correctly allowed the bombastic and potentially disagreeable voices to be heard, which is appropriate considering the bombastic and disagreeable times in which we live. However, I am concerned that Pitt’s yellow light policy with regards to “civility” is still on the books and now is at risk of being enforced arbitrarily. Donald Trump’s arrival may not have aided the cause of civility, but it helped me realize the true value of incivility on our college campuses.

Bayard Miller is a FIRE summer intern.

Schools:  University of Pittsburgh