About Speech Codes
June 24, 2005
Colleges and universities routinely punish students and faculty for their speech, writings, and membership in campus groups. Administrators create and enforce speech codes in an attempt to outlaw free speech and free expression that do not conform to various new campus orthodoxies. For example, in recent years, the following speech codes (some later modified after public exposure) have existed on America’s campuses:
- Bowdoin College banned jokes and stories “experienced by others as harassing.”
- Brown University banned “verbal behavior” that produces “feelings of impotence, anger, or disenfranchisement,” whether “intentional or unintentional.”
- Colby College outlawed speech that causes “a vague sense of danger” or a loss of “self-esteem.”
- The University of Connecticut outlawed “inconsiderate jokes,” “stereotyping” and even “inappropriately directed laughter.”
- The University of Buffalo Law School stated that students’ free speech is limited by “the responsibility to promote equality and justice.”
- Syracuse University outlawed “offensive remarks...sexually suggestive staring...[and] sexual, sexist, or heterosexist remarks or jokes.”
- West Virginia University instructed incoming students and faculty that they must “use language that is not gender specific.... Instead of referring to anyone’s romantic partner as ‘girlfriend’ or ‘boyfriend,’ use positive generic terms such as ‘friend,’ ‘lover,’ or partner.’” Until recently, WVU enforced “free speech zones” (in reality, “censorship zones”) that comprised only one percent of the public campus.
- Finally, the University of North Dakota defined as harassment anything that intentionally produces “psychological discomfort, embarrassment, or ridicule” (a category of no small scope).
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 Codes Rating System featured in FIRE’s Spotlight.