Over the past year, universities from around the country have been putting forward new speech codes that aim at defining what is tolerated and what is not allowed from their students while on campus. The problem with these is that they are loosely worded and possibly contain violations of the First Amendment. Many of these schools are public institutions, so they should be directly bound by the Bill of Rights.
Listed here are some of the most egregious violations. At Trinity College, new policy denies clubs and social organizations on campus the freedom of association. They cannot have any control in who joins and must also meet certain quotas to promote diversity. If you don’t meet these quotas, your club is gone. Imagine, fraternities expelled because they could not get enough female students to join or the anime club disbarred for not having high enough representation from the baseball team.
Troy University’s speech code is even more fun. It deems certain topics of conversation off-limits. Some of the topics, like marital status, make me cringe. Why? Let’s take Valentine’s Day for example. Singles Awareness Day could suddenly be very scary for couples. By this speech code, you could technically be disciplined for being seen holding hands.
Here is an excerpt from the Wesleyan University’s student handbook about what it forbids: “[A]ctions that may be harmful to the health or emotional stability of
the individual or that degrade the individual or infringe upon his/her
Remember the movie “Dead Man on Campus?” Remember the ending where the protagonist fakes depression so they wouldn’t get a failing grade? This rule applied to regular conversation is bad enough, however, the school is begging for someone to try and pull off that in real life.
Even the U.S. government is getting involved. A joint effort is being led by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education to make these kinds of rules and codes nationwide. In a settlement with the University of Montana, the departments told the university that it has to define sexual harassment to include anything of a sexual nature, specifically speech. This idea lacks the reasonable person threshold, which states that if the majority doesn’t find something offensive, then the person’s claim of harassment is invalid. A complaint of any kind about anything would cause the speaker to be in trouble without a full investigation into the matter. The departments went on to say that this is the blueprint every university should be adopting.
Now why is all of this terrible? It means your plans for your future hinge on the whim of your peers. It means that when it comes to a person’s rights, like freedom of speech, the right to due process just doesn’t matter in college. If K-State had rules like this, I couldn’t talk about such issues without fear of reprisal. And if students complained about my articles, I could report complainers for hurting my feelings. That is the kind of shenanigans that these rules allow and it is gambling with one’s future to do so.
There is a limit to free speech in schools. However, the standard definition requires the speech to be so belligerent that it interferes with school operations, like if a person is bullied to the point they don’t want to go to class for fear of their aggressor. Beyond that, including everything under the sun is a waste of time since there is always going to be those who oppose certain things on campus. Grades, lectures and discourse can’t be eliminated, and neither should free speech.
The constitution doesn’t suddenly take effect when we graduate from college, and most of us are 18 years old upon entering college. It’s about time college students are treated like adults. I know there is a difference between the norms of a private school and a public school as far as rules go, but all of these schools listed here are public universities. The government doesn’t have the right deny people their rights.
Patrick White is a senior in journalism and electronic media. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org