Free Speech and Civility

(Editor’s note: This essay is the latest installment in an occasional series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now,” which offers personal perspectives on the college experience).

I graduated from North Carolina State University last spring. My time at State was a lot of fun, but there were some things that the university did that made me uneasy. I spent three years as a Resident Adviser (RA), so I have some insider’s knowledge as to the workings of the bureaucracy.

RAs are students paid by the university to live in on-campus residence halls and act as a resource to the students living there. Some of the duties of RAs include enforcing the policies of the university, such as not allowing alcohol in a “dry” dorm, and putting on various events or “programs” for the residents to learn from and enjoy, such as having the counseling center give a talk about stress and how to deal with it. NC State’s University Housing, my former employer, likes to be in the forefront of efforts to promote diversity and tolerance; however, sometimes it goes too far.

In the fall of 2011, my senior year and third year as an RA, University Housing decided to push what it called the Civility Statement. The civility statement was Housing’s response to racist images and words painted in our Free Expression Tunnel following the mid-term elections in 2010.

The Free Expression Tunnel, which connects the main campus to the residence halls, is an icon of NC State’s campus and a rarity on college campuses. Anyone can spray paint anything he or she wants on the tunnel’s walls. All types of things are spray painted over the course of the year. Aspiring artists showcase their talents, student groups try to attract attention to their activities, local nightclubs advertise, the tunnel is painted red and white before State plays UNC, and then there is the occasional off-color drawing, usually a phallic reference or two. It is college, after all.

Among other things, the civility statement called for students to “speak to each other in a civil manner, refrain from displaying items that are disrespectful and hurtful to others, and confront behavior or report to staff incidents of incivility or intolerance.” Asking people to be civil may seem like the appropriate thing to do; however, the statement caused some concerns on its own.

The first thing you have to notice about the civility statement is how vague those standards are. What exactly does “refrain from displaying items that are disrespectful and hurtful to others” mean? Does that mean I can’t put a Bible verse on my door because non-Christians might be offended? Does that mean I can’t have an Obama 2012 poster because Republicans might get angry? How about telling Carolina fans to go to Hell, something we State fans do at every sporting event when we chant our Red & White song, is that something you would consider civil? The standard for what is uncivil is entirely subjective and open to abuse by trigger-happy administrators and easily offended students.

To be fair, during RA training that year, my boss’s boss, an assistant director in Housing, said that the civility statement was entirely voluntary and that free speech rights would be protected. However, the civility statement initially made no mention of the fact that the statement was voluntary. As an RA, it was my responsibility to put the civility statement on students’ dorm room fridges, so it seemed as though the statement was an enforceable policy. I raised concerns about it to the Foundation of Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization dedicated to promoting constitutional rights on campus, which agreed that an enforceable policy would absolutely violate the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution.

After FIRE brought my concerns to NC State, University Housing amended the civility statement to include a clause indicating that the University was strongly committed to freedom of expression and that the civility statement was completely voluntary. University Housing deserves credit for doing so. However, there still could be a chilling effect on speech. Some students might not want to voice their opinions for fear of being chastised as uncivil, particularly if they hold politically or religiously unpopular views. I would have preferred University Housing remove the civility statement in its entirety.

After all, in regard to the Free Expression Tunnel incidents, there is an easy remedy for getting rid of offensive postings: Just spray paint over them with a more positive message. Most statements don’t last longer than a day in the tunnel, anyway, since someone spray paints over them. A really nice mural or painting might last a week at most.

The way to defeat offensive and hate speech is not to suppress speech but to empower others to use their speech to counter it. Blocking the Free Expression Tunnel, which some students did in response to the incident that led to the incivility statement, was not the way to go about it.

It was bad enough that the protestors prevented other students from getting to class, in the only handicapped-accessible tunnel I might add, but the campus police aided and abetted the actions of these protestors by forcing students to use other tunnels farther away. I found that to be more offensive than anything that was spray painted on that wall. The offensive graffiti was gone by the next morning anyway before most students would see it.

The lesson to take away from this is to be wary of college and university initiatives to promote civility and tolerance. More often than not, they are very vague and tend to punish those with a minority viewpoint.

Those initiatives are usually well intentioned, and administrators may not realize that their actions violate the First Amendment. It’s always good to remind colleges not only of their obligations under the Bill of Rights, but that spirited and even heated debate is a good thing for the marketplace of ideas. It’s not something colleges should try to curb or suppress but rather promote.

My story is one of preventing a questionable statement from becoming policy. Many colleges have far worse policies and I urge college students to be in constant vigilance against them.

On that note, I will be enjoying my weekly dose of incivility at the next NC State game, for I will be screaming, “Go to Hell, Carolina,” at the top of my lungs.