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College campus speech codes

Do university administrators have the right to restrict students' free speech? While discussing an article that appeared in the local Tribune-Review on Tuesday, my Newswriting class briefly touched on the topic of speech codes on college campuses.

Speech codes, which became popular amongst public colleges in the '80s and the early '90s, are generally sets of rules that describe limitations on students' right to free speech, often justified by the claim that minority students have little or no defense against the "hate speech" of other students, thus limiting their own rights. In other words, speech codes are an attempt to balance the rights of both groups -- at least, that's what most of their proponents claim.

An examination of the history of speech codes and the legal battles that they have caused, found on the firstamendmentcenter.org website, describes some of the details of past speech codes, several of which immediately caught my attention as cause for alarm.

Look at the following rules, set down in 1988 by a speech code at the University of Michigan:

"Any behavior, verbal or physical, that stigmatizes or victimizes an individual on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, sex, sexual orientation, creed … and that … Creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment for educational pursuits, employment or participation in University[-]sponsored extra-curricular activities [is prohibited]."

The speech code even provides some examples of "harassing conduct":

"You exclude someone from a study group because that person is of a different race, sex, or ethnic origin than you are.

You display a confederate flag on the door of your room in your residence hall.

You comment in a derogatory way about a particular person or group’s physical appearance or sexual orientation, or their cultural origins, or religious beliefs."

The second and third examples here really caught my attention. It seems impossible to justify a ban on simply displaying a certain type of flag or a ban on "derogatory" comments about someone's physical appearance -- especially on a public college campus.

I agree with the decision of the courts on this particular speech code -- "The Supreme Court has consistently held that statutes punishing speech or conduct solely on the grounds that they are unseemly or offensive are unconstitutionally overbroad." After all, it's hardly constitutional to punish people for simply holding certain beliefs or opinions of others.

My professor informed our class that Seton Hill does not have a speech code -- probably, as we discussed in class, because the issue of discrimination is already addressed by the university's current policies. I wonder, though, if those policies may one day be challenged, and thus changed to better suit shifting needs on campus? At any rate, I hope that if they do change, they don't follow the tradition of speech codes laid down by other universities -- for the sake of the university, itself.


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Yeah, social reforms can definitely cross the line. I think that the initial purpose of speech codes is often sensible, but they quickly approach a level of unfair restriction because there are too many ways in which minorities can be offended. You can't really stop them all, not even with speech codes.

That's a thorough explanation of speech codes. I am of the impression that when social reforms are first legislated, they are necessary to correct abuse and protect a segment of the population. There comes a point, however, when they seem to cross the line. Maybe it comes down to whoever has the strongest lobby. Maybe it comes down, as well, to the golden rule.

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