Speech codes still plague college campuses

Some people would have you believe that the age of “political correctness” is over. Supposedly, the movement to stifle speech that could be regarded as offensive by individuals in certain “protected” groups has lost its impact, especially in the institution where political correctness activists found their strongest support – higher education.

Unfortunately, that simply isn’t true.

Exhibit A for the case that political correctness still stalks students and faculty members is a recent study released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It found that speech codes and other university policies that restrain freedom of expression still exist. Despite numerous court decisions against such policies because they infringe upon First Amendment rights, colleges and universities across America continue to enforce their anti-free speech policies.

The study, entitled “Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on Our Nation’s Campuses,” surveyed 330 institutions, both public and private, and found that a vast majority have at least one policy that is inconsistent with free speech on campus. Earlier this year, the Pope Center and FIRE released a joint report finding that 13 of the 16 University of North Carolina institutions have at least one policy that clearly and substantially limits free speech.

The new FIRE study found that 73 percent of public universities continue to maintain unconstitutional speech codes. FIRE did not specifically mention in the report which schools they surveyed, but some within North Carolina, such as UNC-Greensboro, the North Carolina School of the Arts, and Davidson College were singled out for their policies that limit free speech on campus.

UNC-Greensboro has a policy that prohibits “disrespect for persons,” FIRE found. The North Carolina School of the Arts bans “using offensive speech or behavior of a biased or prejudiced nature related to one’s personal characteristics.” While Davidson prohibits “comments or inquiries about dating,” “patronizing remarks,” and “dismissive comments.”

Referring to the continuing, widespread infringements on freedom of speech, FIRE president Greg Lukianoff said, “There is a common misconception that ‘speech codes’ are a thing of the past – a relic of the heyday of political correctness of the 1980s and 90s – but the public needs to know that speech codes are perhaps more pervasive and restrictive than ever.”

Speech codes first came about in the 1980s as universities began trying to enroll more women and members of minority groups. Many college administrators sought to protect these new segments of the student population from the expression of any ideas that could possibly be regarded as offensive. The trouble with that approach is that the First Amendment protects most speech, even if it is offensive.

There are very few occasions, as FIRE notes in its report, where speech crosses the line and loses its First Amendment protection. Those areas include inciting violence, obscenity and libel. FIRE states that if “the speech does not fall within one of these exceptions, it is in all likelihood protected free speech.”

Many colleges and universities, however, continue to advocate the use of speech codes and “anti-harassment” policies that also restrict what one can say. University of Wisconsin professor and First Amendment advocate Donald Alexander Downs (author of Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus which the Pope Center’s George Leef reviewed here) says that universities continue to get away with the use of speech codes and anti-harassment policies because many federal rulings against them “are not always obeyed very faithfully, especially when institutional constituencies favor such policies.”

“The problem on campuses is the lack of strong constituencies supporting free speech and academic freedom,” Downs contends. There are vocal groups that clamor for restrictions on freedom of expression, but they are not counter-balanced by groups demanding that universities remain places where the exchange of ideas is wide open.

Downs and FIRE believe that the key to eliminating speech codes and anti-harassment policies that run counter to the First Amendment from being used on college campuses is bring some little daylight to such policies. Public opinion is strongly against interferences with the freedom of speech and few schools want to be recognized as places where students and faculty members have to carefully weigh every word for the possibility that it might offend someone.

FIRE’s study notes there have been some successes since 2005 in working towards eliminating speech codes and anti-harassment policies. The FIRE/Pope Center report found that Appalachian State had a policy that banned “insults, taunts, or challenges directed toward another person.” A graduate student who read the report challenged its legality to university administrators. In March, the policy was repealed.

The Appalachian State case seems to confirm the earlier point that the first step in combating speech codes is to make their existence public. If more students took the initiative on their campuses and challenged unconstitutional policies, liberty and freedom of speech would soon be restored at all our colleges and universities. Doing that is vital in a republic that depends so much on the idea that each individual is entitled to his own set of beliefs and values.

“The suppression of free speech at American universities is a national scandal,” the FIRE report states in conclusion. “But supporters of liberty should take heart: while many colleges and universities might seem at times to believe that they exist in a vacuum, the truth is that neither our nation’s courts nor its people look favorably upon speech codes or other restrictions on basic freedoms.”

FIRE has been fighting against restrictions on free speech for its entire existence and is to be commended for its continuing efforts.