As some college campuses, including Pacific University, are considering ways to regulate, or at least monitor speech, a national organization is pushing back. Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is an organization that seeks to uphold First Amendment rights on college campuses and believes universities should encourage speech, not limit it.
FIRE’s Vice President of Policy Research, Samantha Harris, said speech codes could cause students to censor their speech.
“When schools have speech codes prohibiting things like offensive speech,” Harris said. “Students worry their politically unpopular views will be the subject of complaints from other students, and they self-censor.”
According to Harris, students may also feel uncomfortable speaking up because they are afraid of how other students will respond. Harris called this fear the “social consequences of free speech,” and said students need to be ready and willing to deal with those consequences.
“Certainly, I would encourage students to do a better job of listening to and tolerating a diverse range of viewpoints,” Harris said. “Just as a conservative student has a free speech right to express a conservative viewpoint, a liberal student has a free speech right to push back against that speech with speech of his or her own.”
This difference in opinion should not be faced with a speech code, according to Harris, but instead colleges should make it clear to students all constitutionally protected speech is welcome on campus, even if other students complain about it. Universities should be encouraging students to have the strength to stand up for their beliefs even if they know others will have opposing opinions. Jules Boykoff, professor and department chair for Pacific’s department of politics and government, said colleges and students share the responsibility of making everyone’s opinion feel welcome on campus.
“I hope as universities that’s what we’re all about: encouraging respectful dialogue,” Boykoff said. “I imagine that’s happening in every single classroom on campus, that’s sort of the idea of how we get further with our thinking, engaging in respectful dialogue about tricky issues. Students absolutely have a responsibility for it as well. One thing that I don’t think we talk about enough is the role of bystanders who are there when they see what is thought of as disrespectful speech, and to call it out and make sure that people understand that it’s not acceptable.”
According to Boykoff, there are better ways to make students feel comfortable on campus that do not involve speech codes, like monitoring behavior instead.
“There are already in place penalties for behaviors, not for the content of speech,” Boykoff said. “If someone goes to the point of saying something hateful, then there are hate crimes. If someone spray paints something hateful on a wall, there’s vandalism as a crime. There are behaviors that can be regulated, you don’t necessarily have to start stepping onto the terrain of free speech.”
On the website, FIRE uses a traffic light rating system to rate colleges with a green, yellow or red light depending on how restrictive on free speech their policy is.
“Green light schools do not prohibit speech that is protected by the First Amendment,” Harris said. “So they would serve as good models for a school that is looking to establish a conduct code.”
Universities with what Harris considers to be a good code of conduct are University of Virginia, University of Chicago and Oregon State University. The common theme that runs through the speech policies at these colleges is they protect the use of all constitutionally protected speech and promise students will not be punished for using it. These speech policies also encourage students to treat each other with respect when discussing a difference of opinion.
According to Harris, no college that claims to value free expression should have a speech code. Instead, universities should make it clear the kind of speech that is not protected under freedom of speech, such as hate speech, is not tolerated on campus.
“Some kinds of speech, harassment, true threats, defamation, obscenity, are not protected by the First Amendment and should be prohibited under a school’s code of conduct,” Harris said. “But other than speech that would not be constitutionally protected outside the bounds of campus, a school should not attempt to dictate what kinds of student interactions are appropriate or not; that would just be censorship.”