FIRE Intern Examines Columbia’s Speech Codes, Calls for Rescission
July 9, 2009
by Luke Sheahan
FIRE intern Noah Baron has a post this week over at the Columbia Spectator's Commentariat blog discussing Columbia University's shameful speech codes, recently profiled in FIRE's review of US News & World Report's top 25 colleges and universities. In his post, "President Bollinger, Tear Down This Speech Code," Noah writes:
Columbia University has a number of troublesome policies which constrict student speech on campus in truly bizarre and disturbing ways. Whether all or some of these policies are actually enforced is more or less irrelevant, largely because of the fact that this simply means they can be enforced only when convenient — say, against a student who isn't comfortable with the Manhattanville expansion, or a conservative student critical of the Women's Studies department.
Analyzing Columbia's "Email Usage and Retention Policy," which states in part, "Nuisance email or other online messages such as chain letters or obscene, harassing, offensive or other unwelcome messages are prohibited," Noah observes:
What, exactly, constitutes "nuisance", "obscene", "offensive" or "unwelcome"? And why is this policy not even limited to just those examples provided? These are provided only as examples, not as a comprehensive — not an exhaustive — list. If you've ever used the Columbia e-mail system (which you're required to do by University policy) then you might lose your e-mail or internet access — if not worse.
Noah has also dug up interesting tidbits about Columbia's policy that should put students and faculty members on guard, including a notice to students that e-mails deleted and purged from student e-mail accounts are still accessible to administrators for another week.
Another troublesome policy Noah notes is the Policy on Partisan Political Activity, which institutes a regime of prior review for student groups engaged in "partisan political campaign activities." Additionally, he offers his thoughts on the relevant court precedent.
In his incisive analysis, Noah points out that—as FIRE has said many times—private universities need to abide by the promises they make to their students. Columbia makes strong promises of free expression to its students and is currently under the administration of one of the most prominent free speech scholars in the country. It is really past time for Columbia president Lee Bollinger to "tear down this speech code."