Would you ever believe that putting a Ronald Reagan quote on your dorm room wall would violate your college’s speech code policy? We are reaching that point, folks.
David Deerson of Carolina Review reports.
Is posting a quote by Ronald Regan on your dorm room wall a violation of school policy? Maybe. The department of Housing and Residential Education has a policy that students must “[a]void using the written or spoken word in a way that demeans, defames, offends, slanders or discriminates [emphasis added].” So posting a quote like “[p]olitics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first,” could get you in hot water with school bureaucrats.
Policies like this have earned UNC a red-light rating from The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). FIRE gives schools one of three rankings based on their policies regarding freedom of expression. A green light rating means that the school has policies which protect free speech (nominally, at least). Yellow light means that the school has ambiguous policies that too easily encourage administrative abuse and arbitrary application. Red light schools, like our own priceless gem, have policies that clearly and substantially restrict free speech.
On Monday, September 17th, the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution, students got a chance to learn more about how UNC stifles free speech. Robert Shibley, executive vice president of FIRE, delivered a lecture on campus sponsored by the UNC Young Americans for Liberty.
Mr. Shibley discussed various policies at Carolina like the one above that clearly or potentially restrict
free expression. One such policy lists “sexually explicit jokes,” “whistling,” and “sexually explicit statements” as “[e]xamples of sexual harassment.” The policy does not say these things may be examples of sexual harassment, but that they are.
Policies like these hamper students’ ability to receive the top-quality education that UNC promises to provide. In an environment where students are silenced in the dorms for fear of being “offensive,” how will students have their ideas challenged? How can they grow? As John Stuart Mill wrote in his seminal 1859 essay On Liberty, “genius can only breath freely in an atmosphere of freedom.”
Education isn’t the only thing at stake; such policies are also often illegal. Take our policy on sexual harassment, which reads:
Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, or other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that expressly or implicitly imposes conditions upon, threatens, interferes with, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or demeaning environment for an individual’s (I) academic pursuits, (II) University employment, (III) participation in activities sponsored by the University or organizations or groups related to the University, or (IV) opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University life [boldface in original]. – Student Instrument (1) II.C.1.b.iv
This policy is very similar to the harassment policy found unconstitutional in the case of Doe v. University of Michigan, 721 F. Supp. 852 (E.D. Mich. 1989), one of the first of many court decisions striking down public university harassment policies on First Amendment grounds. The court in that case held that the phrase “involve an express or implied threat to an individual’s academic efforts” was too vague because “it is not clear what would constitute a ‘threat’ to an individual’s academic efforts.”
UNC’s policy contains nearly identical language, prohibiting conduct that “expressly or implicitly … threatens, interferes with … academic pursuits,” as well as the even more vague “opportunities to benefit from other aspects of University life.” It can easily be used to punish important protected speech, such as the discussion of sexual roles in a provocative or controversial work of literature. Such academic discussion, above all, should not be suppressed under a flawed understanding of sexual harassment. Many students and faculty members likely censor themselves rather than risk punishment, stifling valuable discussion and dialogue.