NC State Drops 'Civility' Mandate
September 7, 2012
RALEIGH, N.C., September 7, 2012—Students returning to North Carolina State University for this new semester will no longer risk punishment for expression that administrators deem "uncivil." Last year, students living in NC State residence halls were subject to a civility statement requiring students to "speak to each other in a civil manner" and prohibiting the display of items that might be "disrespectful" or "hurtful." After the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) wrote to NC State pointing out the First Amendment problems posed by the policy, NC State revised it for this year, making it clear that freedom of expression is paramount.
"FIRE commends NC State for making these needed changes to its civility statement," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. "NC State is free to encourage its students to be civil—but in a free society, uncivil speech is frequently important as well. We're glad NC State's new policy recognizes this."
In fall 2011, NC State's civility policy, promulgated by the department of University Housing, stated that "campus residents must be civil with each other." The policy also prohibited students from displaying items or using technology that might be "hurtful" or "disrespectful" to others. However, the Supreme Court decades ago determined that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.'" Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri (1973).
"While civility is a commendable value, history has shown us that it is not always sufficient to achieve justice. If the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s had limited itself to tactics and expression that even segregationists agreed were civil, respectful, and not hurtful, it's unlikely that the movement could have triumphed against the bigotry and oppression that were then institutionalized into law," Shibley said.
After NC State student and resident advisor Derek Spicer contacted FIRE about his strong objection to the policy, FIRE wrote to NC State Chancellor Randy Woodson last November, pointing out the legal and moral problems with the policy. FIRE asked that Woodson "clarify to students and administrators that protected expression may never and will never be investigated or punished at NC State." NC State responded in December saying that the policy was under review.
Spicer informed FIRE this month that the policy had been changed for the 2012-13 school year. The policy now states that "[t]he University is strongly committed to freedom of expression. The University Housing Civility Statement is not intended to interfere in any way with an individual's academic or personal freedoms. We hope that individuals will voluntarily endorse the expectations outlined below..."
"As an RA, I did not want to be responsible for pushing an unconstitutional policy on my residents," Spicer added. "I'm proud that NC State has taken the steps to ensure that free speech rights of students on campus come first."
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.