Montclair State University Revises Former Speech Code of the Month
October 13, 2011
In May 2011, FIRE named Montclair State University our Speech Code of the Month for hastily adding an ill-defined prohibition on "bullying" into its harassment policy. In that article, we discussed "how a hasty response to the new pressure to address bullying can infringe on students' expressive rights," noting that prohibiting "bullying" without defining the term "provides little guidance as to what might be prohibited."
Thankfully, Montclair State has updated its harassment policy for the current academic year, providing a more detailed definition of bullying that gives students a much clearer definition of what is prohibited. The 2011-2012 policy provides, in relevant part, that
Students are prohibited from engaging in harassment, intimidation and bullying. A student will be found responsible for harassment, intimidation or bullying if he or she engages in conduct ... that is so severe or pervasive and objectively offensive that [it] substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the University or the rights of any student or other member of the University community ....
Unfortunately, the tension between anti-bullying regulations and free speech is far from resolved. Montclair State's new policy includes the critical requirement of objective offensiveness, which prevents students' free speech rights from existing solely at the mercy of the most sensitive members of the community. But New Jersey, where Montclair State is located, recently passed an anti-bullying law requiring all colleges and universities in the state to prohibit "harassment, intimidation, and bullying," which the law defines without reference to an objective standard.
At least for the time being, however, Montclair State has vastly improved upon the overly vague bullying policy it adopted last year. Students' free speech rights are better protected as a result, and for that FIRE is very pleased.