In 1972 comedian George Carlin unveiled a profane comedy routine in which he uttered seven profanities prohibited on the public airwaves by the Federal Communications Commission. His “Seven Things You Can’t Say on Television” is often revered by self-styled civil libertarians on the left – even though the FCC regulations he was criticizing were upheld in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation in 1978. Yet Carlin’s performance is iconic for some because of his stance against “the man.”
Today’s “man” isn’t the FCC, it’s the tax-funded university’s “Diversity officer” or even its Dean of student affairs. But sadly the state of free speech on campus is no laughing matter, and the ACLU and its allies seem to have little to say about the egregious situation for free speech on campus. Public universities across the country routinely employ “harassment,” “bias incident,” and even computer use policies that prohibit not just a few choice words but entire subjects of legitimate conversation simply because someone – including eavesdroppers – might take offense or even find the conversation “annoying.” These policies, often collectively referred to as “speech codes,” stifle free speech either by their enforcement or by simply threatening to subject students to punishment if a listener reports them (as they are usually encouraged to do). The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has twice dealt with speech codes on high school and university campuses in recent years. Most recently ADF scored a significant victory for student speech rights in DeJohn v. Temple University, 537 F.3d 301 (3rd Cir. 2008) where the Third Circuit held that the school’s sexual harassment policy was overbroad and could be used to punish core protected speech.
With two years distance from the DeJohn decision, however, public universities across New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania continue to hold on to egregiously unconstitutional speech codes that use much of the same language rejected in Saxe and DeJohn and inhibit expression and skew debate on campus by placing students at risk of substantial punishment if someone claims offense at what they say.
At Rutgers University, students are encouraged to report “bias incidents” by fellow students, including any “verbal, written … or psychological” act that “maligns” a person on the basis of a number of bases including religion, sexual orientation, and others. Such acts warrant “intervention” where they lose a student to “lose confidence in their ability to participate in the educational mission of the university.” So a conversation or an email about religious differences that the listener or recipient thinks “maligns” their religion warrants punishment. And if all that weren’t enough, the department responsible for deciding whether a student’s email or conversation is a punishable “bias incident” is the “Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities.” The exact role of any kangaroos in the proceedings is unclear.
Similarly, at Cheyney University in Pennsylvania students can be punished for “spoken words” or any “production, display or circulation of written words, pictures or other materials” that offend a person on the basis of a number of bases from gender or “religious belief.” So a student circulating an image of Mohammed that is viewed by a Muslim student or stating their belief that faith in Christ is the only means of salvation is potentially subject to punishment if someone is offended by their speech. Delaware State University prohibits “offensive utterances” and Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania prohibit certain speech that the school believes would create an “offensive … environment.”
And it’s not just these 5 schools that are receiving letters today that are the problem. Research by ADF allied attorneys shows a host of schools in the Third Circuit that retain egregiously unconstitutional speech codes despite clear precedent in the Third Circuit. For instance, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania prohibits students from engaging in “disrespectful, absurd and rude” behavior. I believe this is the first policy I’ve ever seen that violates itself. Isn’t engaging in “absurd” behavior a substantial part of university life? On the college campus it’s not just seven profane words that are prohibited, but a whole host of ideas and topics of conversation that are verboten.
Is this any way to run a marketplace of ideas? There is no more excuse for universities in these states to claim that they were unaware of the law. It is clearly established, they are in clear violation, and it is time for them to respect the rights of their students and the authority of binding federal courts. That’s why we are today launching an initiative to urge schools in the Third Circuit to eliminate their unconstitutional speech codes. The five schools mentioned above will receive today a letter pointing out the serious flaws in the university’s speech codes and offering to assist the universities in bringing their policies into compliance with the First Amendment. It is our sincere hope that each school will choose to revise its policies voluntarily and ensure that its students’ rights are protected. But if they do not, we stand ready to take the next step and protect these students’ rights in federal court. And if you’re a student who would also like to address the unconstitutional speech codes on your campus, please let us know. This is the beginning of this effort, not the end. Stay tuned.