What Are Speech Codes?
FIRE defines a "speech code" as any university regulation or policy that prohibits expression that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large. Any policy—such as a harassment policy, a student conduct code, or a posting policy—can be a speech code if it prohibits protected speech or expression. Examples of speech codes include:
- Davidson College's ban on "innuendoes," "teasing," "jokes," and "comments or inquiries about dating."
- Lake Superior State University's ban on "Postings deemed offensive, sexist, vulgar, discriminatory or suggestive...."
- The University of Miami's prohibition of "any words or acts ... which cause or result in physical or emotional harm to others, or which intimidate, degrade, demean, threaten, haze or otherwise interfere with another person's rightful actions or comfort."
- Central Washington University's ban on "sexist statements and behavior that convey insulting, degrading, or sexist attitudes."
- Lehigh University's policy prohibiting "sending annoying, threatening, libelous, or sexually, racially, or religiously offensive messages through electronic means."
If universities applied these rules to the letter, major voices of public criticism, satire, and commentary would be silenced on American campuses, and some of our greatest authors, artists, and filmmakers would be banned. These codes also lead students to believe they have an absolute right to be free from offense, embarrassment, or discomfort. As a result, other students begin the compromise of self-censorship.
These attitudes stay with students long after graduation. If students on our nation's campuses learn that jokes, remarks, and visual displays that "offend" someone may rightly be banned, they will not find it odd or dangerous when the government itself seeks to censor and to demand moral conformity in the expression of its citizens. A nation that does not educate in freedom will not survive in freedom, and will not even know when it has lost it. It is to prevent this unspeakable loss of freedom that FIRE has created the Speech Code Rating System featured in FIRE's Spotlight.