Your Tuition Dollars at Work

September 16, 2010

We have written before about the problem of administrative bloat on college campuses and its tendency to lead to the micromanagement of students’ lives, particularly in the area of free speech. As Azhar discussed last month here on The Torch, a recent study by the Goldwater Institute found that between 1993 and 2007, the number of administrators for every 100 college students increased by 39 percent, while the number of professors and researchers for every 100 students rose by only 18 percent during the same period.

Obviously, the role of college administrators in creating and enforcing unconstitutional speech codes is of special concern to FIRE. In that vein, I bring you an example of your tuition dollars hard at work. Someone at Western Kentucky University (WKU) was actually paid (I assume) to write the following policy, which defines "unruly conduct" as

Disorderly or lewd, any words or acts that result in physical altercation, fighting and indecent or obscene conduct or expression that cause physical injury or threaten himself/herself or others, or interferes with any individual’s rightful act.

Whoever wrote this clearly grasps neither the law nor the English language. Lewd and indecent speech and expression are still entitled to constitutional protection, and cannot be banned across the board at a public university like WKU. Also unconstitutional is the ban on "any words … that result in physical altercation," since this broad prohibition presumably encompasses any controversial or offensive speech that angers someonehowever unreasonable he or she may beto the point of physical retaliation. And as courts have held in cases too numerous to mention, speech cannot legitimately be prohibited on the basis of subjective listener reaction.

Beyond these problems, the policy is so incomprehensibly written that it is difficult if not impossible to discern exactly what is prohibited, leaving students forced to guess. First, is all "indecent or obscene conduct or expression" prohibited, or only "indecent or obscene conduct or expression that cause[s] physical injury"? (Let’s leave aside the question of how indecent or obscene conduct or expression could cause physical injury; I’m not sure I want to know the answer.) Second, what exactly does the ban on "disorderly or lewd" encompass? Does it refer only to physical conduct, or expression as well? Finally, this policy is fraught with so many other grammatical errors that it is simply difficult to read and process.

The bottom line is this: Policies that impact students’ and faculty members’ fundamental rights must be carefully written by individuals with an understanding of the applicable law and an ability to make the rules understandable to their intended audience. Anything less is unacceptable.

Schools:  Western Kentucky University