FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

College of Charleston Earned a “Red Light” by FIRE

By Natalie Bao Tram Le (Young Voices Advocate and College of Charleston Student)

College of Charleston’s speech policies recently earned a “red light” categorization by Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for having a policy that clearly restricts freedom of speech. Specifically, according to the “Student Code of Conduct” section of the College of Charleston Student Handbook, “verbal abuse, defined as use of derogatory terms, foul or demeaning language, which may be accompanied by a hostile tone or intense volume of delivery” is prohibited. The problem is that “verbal abuse” is too broad and subjective a term and has the potential to suppress the free exchange of ideas on campus.

FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education)

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is a non-profit group founded in 1999 that focuses on civil liberties in academia in the United States.
(Courtesy of FIRE)

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, under which all public universities, including the College of Charleston, are to abide, protects our expression of direct words and symbolic actions. Even though private universities are outside of that obligation, it is objectively understood that in order for students to freely share ideas and be better prepared for life after graduation, college campuses must be free of anti-speech codes. Intellectual growth is hindered when students are forced to tiptoe around sensitive topics and avoid words deemed by the “easily-triggered” as offensive.

In the College’s campus speech codes, the word “verbal abuse” includes “derogatory terms” and “foul or demeaning language.” Yet, what is considered as disparaging to one may not be so to another. Regardless, these terms fall under constitutionally protected speech, even when coupled with a “hostile tone” or “intense volume.” For abusive speech to even be considered as harassment, it needs to be – according to Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education –, “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims’ educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution’s resources and opportunities.” Otherwise, what people think is verbally abusive generally is protected speech.

Even though there are no incidents (at least not on record) at the College that have suppressed free speech, we have anti-speech codes that may incentivize activities that inhibit students from saying what they want to say. We need to remove these codes before such incidents take place. For example, Emory University “prohibits speech or conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment.” This policy is an example of a hate speech code that students can easily utilize to interpret anything as creating an “intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment.” As a result, some Emory students argued that a “Trump 2016” chalk message written on campus was “hate speech” under their current speech codes!

(Courtesy of Simon Gibba via Flickr Creative Commons)

(Courtesy of Simon Gibba via Flickr Creative Commons)

To be an institution that fosters creativity and intellectual exploration, the College must do away with anti-speech policies that impair students’ minds from freely expressing their thoughts – regardless of how unpopular and controversial it is. Free speech codes should encourage students to express their thoughts. It is necessary to lift any suppression of opinions and words in order to embrace the maximization of freedom of speech.

An alternative to banning speech codes is the implementation of measures that are more compatible with fostering free speech. From the American Association of University Professors’ policy statement, one consideration that the College could implement is to “stress the means they use best — to educate — including the development of courses and other curricular and co-curricular experiences designed to increase student understanding and to deter offensive or intolerant speech or conduct.” This proposal ensures that students’ right to free speech is not encroached upon, while at the same time educating students on how to best handle “offensive or intolerant speech or conduct.”

College is an institution of knowledge and a haven for budding scholars to make mistakes, learn from them and grow. Gaining new experiences is essential to a mature mind, and what better place to do it than a university that promotes discussion of diverse ideas? To take away such opportunities for the sake of those who are fearful of hearing what they might consider “derogatory, foul or demeaning” does a disservice to those who want to learn. The right to speak should not end once stepping on campus.


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