Speech Code of the Month: University of Central Arkansas
July 3, 2013
FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for July 2013: the University of Central Arkansas (UCA).
If you are applying to UCA, you had better make sure to brush up on your social skills, because UCA’s list of “Offenses Subject to Disciplinary Action” (PDF) includes “annoying” another person. This policy is overly broad because nearly all “annoying” speech is fully protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the U.S. Supreme Court explicitly said as much in Terminiello v. Chicago, 337 U.S. 1, 4 (1949), when it held that “freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance, or unrest” (emphasis added).
Moreover, students have no way to know what might be punishable since the policy conditions the permissibility of speech entirely upon the subjective reaction of the listener. What might seem like a lively debate to one person could be extremely annoying to another person. (Just ask my husband!)
UCA digs itself a deeper First Amendment hole when it provides examples of prohibited conduct, which include making “disparaging remarks directed at another individual on Facebook, MySpace or other internet site.” (MySpace, really?) As with most “annoying” speech, most “disparaging remarks” are also constitutionally protected. Indeed, a ban on disparaging remarks would have prohibited most of the political campaign ads from the 2012 elections, as well as campaign ads dating from America’s earliest days, when supporters of Thomas Jefferson's presidential campaign referred to John Adams as “blind, bald, crippled, [and] toothless,” among other things. (Check out this fantastic ReasonTV video for this and other negative campaign rhetoric of yore.)
UCA is a public university, bound to uphold its students’ First Amendment rights. This policy utterly fails to do so and must be revised immediately. For this reason, it is our July 2013 Speech Code of the Month.
If you believe that your college’s or university’s policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please email email@example.com with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE’s Campus Freedom Network, an organization of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses. You also can add FIRE’s Speech Code of the Month widget to your blog or website and help shed some much-needed sunlight on these repressive policies.