Speech codes

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) recently released a report entitled “Spotlight on Speech Codes 2006: The State of Free Speech on our Nation’s Campuses.” The data that underlie this report come from a FIRE survey of “over 330 schools” with findings that “an overwhelming majority…explicitly prohibit speech that, outside the borders of campus, is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” FIRE is careful to note that private institutions are not typically beholden to the Constitution but usually claim similar protections or values and thus are effectively held to similar legal and ethical standards. Interestingly (and, to some, controversially), they also exclude from their analysis institutions that explicitly state that they do not assure unlimited free speech or academic freedom to their students, faculty, and staff.

Without addressing whether the claims made by FIRE are correct, there are definitely some ties between technology and speech codes. Whether they are legal or ethical, speech codes or similar policies most certainly do apply to messages communicated via electronic means. By some measure, this is actually good news as it seems logical and fair that messages communicated via electronic media be treated similar to messages communicated via any other media; that the message in question should not be prohibited regardless of the media used to communicate it is another issue altogether.

The really interesting part is when prohibitions or restraints are extended to or created specifically for messages communicated via electronic media. Over a year ago, Fisher College expelled a student for “conspir[ing] to and [sic] damag[ing] the reputation” of a police officer after the student wrote disparaging remarks in Facebook. According to Erik Brady and Daniel Libit’s March USA Today article, Florida State University and the University of Kentucky “issued ultimatums to their athletes to be careful what they post” (good) but Loyola University banned athletes from joining Facebook (bad). According to a press release and other documents distributed by FIRE, a University of Central Florida student was charged with (but found “Not In Violation” of) harassment through “personal abuse” for creating a Facebook group entitled “Victor Perez is a Jerk and a Fool.”

I understand the perceived-dilemma posed by wanting to preserve free speech and academic freedom while also maintaining an open, collegial, and welcoming community. However, I often worry that my friends and colleagues in student affairs place too much emphasis on trying to protect their students and communities from “dangerous” or “bad” speech, even speech that occurs off campus or online. Their heart is in the right place but their actions are misguided. You can’t fight hatred or intolerance by banning it, even if technology seems to give you the tools to do so. Education is the answer; we know that, it’s our business. Rather, we should know that. We forget sometimes and even when we find them annoying or believe them to be wrong it’s great that organizations like FIRE exist to help remind us of some of our responsibilities.