Reform Wesleyan's Speech Code to Maintain Caliber of Academic Discourse
July 30, 2013
by Shafaq Hasan
Shafaq Hasan is a FIRE summer intern.
Earlier this year, FIRE identified Wesleyan University as its February 2013 Speech Code of the Month. Listed under responsibilities shared between each member of the university, Wesleyan maintains a problematic policy that prohibits “actions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe on his/her personal dignity.”
Wesleyan University has yet to alter this policy to address FIRE’s concerns about the code’s vagueness. FIRE has previously commented on the idiosyncratic nature of what can be considered emotionally “harmful” or “degrading” to each individual. One student may have a higher or lower threshold of what he or she identifies as being disruptive to emotional health than another student, giving students no way to know when speech becomes too “degrading” or “undignified” for the policy. There is huge potential for this speech code to be used to punish speech that nearly everyone would agree should go unpunished, especially given Wesleyan’s explicit declaration (PDF) that the right to free speech is the responsibility of “every member of the University to respect.”
Indeed, there have been numerous events on Wesleyan’s campus within the past academic year that would effectively violate the speech code as it is currently written. This past semester, Wesleyan students could walk around campus and see fliers from both Students for Justice in Palestine, an advocacy group for Palestinian rights in the West Bank area, as well as Wesleyan United with Israel, a student organization dedicated to supporting Israel. With opposing ideologies, these two groups often clash on college campuses, given the strong sentiment and personal devotion individuals attach to each cause. Indeed, a column in the The Wesleyan Argus discussed an exchange this past March between the two groups involving provocative fliers. Moreover, in April, the two groups collaborated with J Street U, a pro-Israel advocacy group, and sponsored a panel discussion involving a member from each group following a movie viewing.
For some individuals on campus, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict becomes an emotionally charged commitment and investment that will impact their time at the university and in the classroom. These students will want to come together and discuss their ideas, whether in a panel discussion, with a professor, through competing fliers, protests, or other means. In those circumstances, Wesleyan’s speech code gives the university the ability to censor the students’ discussions if any one individual feels that the controversial dialogue has affected his or her “emotional stability” or infringed on his or her “personal dignity.”
Yet Wesleyan allowed the groups to hang up their fliers. They provided the facilities for the panel discussion and did not impede the events from taking place. Why does the university choose not to enforce its own speech code policy? The answer is because this policy is unreasonable and impractical. A university that values freedom of conscience in its students would not in application censor speech that is potentially distressing to another student or use an arbitrary standard to do so. But then why have the policy at all? As the following examples illustrate, these kinds of policies—in the wrong hands—can lead to censorship.
For example, in 2006, Joshua Stulman’s satirical exhibit involving 13 works exploring the terrorist culture in Palestine was censored by Pennsylvania State University administrators who believed the exhibit violated the university’s nondiscrimination policy because it did not “did not promote cultural diversity,” according to an email from the School of Visual Arts to Stulman. Two years ago, the Associated Students financial board at the University of California, Santa Barbara attempted a heckler’s veto by trying to illegally prevent the College Republicans from bringing outspoken conservative David Horowitz to campus by limiting the group’s funds. Horowitz had previously spoken to other college communities and had made Islamophobic remarks regarding Palestinians and Arabs. Some students on the financial board like Ahmed Naguib, a member of the Muslim Students Association at the time, believed barring Horowitz from speaking would prevent students from feeling uncomfortable. In the end, Horowitz did speak at the university, but the financial board’s attempt to engage in viewpoint discrimination underscores the uphill battle that students often face when seeking to express or sponsor controversial viewpoints on campus. If the financial board had succeeded—as in Joshua Stulman’s case—and prohibited Horowitz’s speech, students would have lost an opportunity to challenge each other and the speaker on his views.
To maintain the quality of academic discourse required on campuses and ensure that groups on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate (and many other important and sometimes controversial debates) can continue engaging in discussions, universities must reevaluate their speech codes to prevent unjust censorship. To start, we look first to Wesleyan University.