A professor at Queen’s University in Ontario has decided that her students can be graded in part based on civility. Could this be a more obvious violation of free speech?

Who decides what counts as civil speech and on what basis? Paging Big Brother.

Colleen Flaherty of Inside Higher Ed News reports.

Can a Professor Require Civility?

A new kind of “civil” rights debate is brewing at Queen’s University in Ontario.

At issue is the “civility clause” psychology professor Jill Jacobson included in her third-year course syllabus, which some view as encroaching on free speech rights. A formal complaint launched against Jacobson earlier this year has come to light in recent days, inciting a Canadian media firestorm, and the university is now reviewing the policy.

Jacobson instituted the clause — which threatens a 10 percent reduction in a student’s final mark for a first offense — to assure that adjuncts and teaching assistants maintain authority over students during her maternity leave early next year, she said (the course is a yearlong requirement for psychology majors). A previous maternity leave left her replacements with little recourse against disruptive or aggressive students, she added.

“If your question is not answered to your satisfaction on the first attempt, please accept the instructor’s or TA’s need to resume with the lecture or tutorial and instead speak with him or her after class or arrange  a separate meeting outside of class time,” the clause reads. “Discriminatory, rude, threatening, harassing, disruptive, distracting, and inappropriate behavior and language will not be tolerated in this class regardless of the context in which such actions occur (i.e., in person, in email, online, in peer reviews, etc.).”

Jacobson has been teaching at Queen’s for 11 years and said she’s never experienced similarly uncivil student behavior outside her third-year course. Still, she said she didn’t foresee enacting the penalty unless the behavior was “egregious,” and expressed surprise at the amount of attention her policy is receiving.