A Very Polite Guide

The indispensible FIRE—the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education—bestows a regular mock honor on some offending college or university: the Speech Code of the Month. So far this year, the winners have included New York University (which bans, among other things, inappropriate jokes and teasing), the University of Idaho (no “insensitive” actions or communications), Northern Illinois University (no annoying or embarrassing anyone through “intentional and wrongful use of words, gestures and actions”), Southern Illinois University at Carbondale (no “demeaning depictions” of anyone—signing up to be an editorial cartoonist there may be as risky as in Denmark) Rhode Island College (for the thought-control policy that forbids racially-based “attitudes”), and San Jose State University (no “publicly telling offensive jokes”).Three institutions on this year’s list–SUNY Buffalo, Idaho and James Madison University–have revised their speech/harassment policies in response to FIRE’s criticism.
FIRE puts out an annual report on campus speech policies. The 2009 report found that 270 of 364 institutions surveyed—74 percent—restrict speech that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment. Last month FIRE published a very polite guide to “Correcting Common Mistakes in Speech Policies,” aimed at college presidents and administrators who do not allow, and often do not understand, the principle of free speech.

John Leo

John Leo is the editor of Minding the Campus, dedicated to chronicling imbalances within higher education and restoring intellectual pluralism to our American universities. His popular column, "On Society," ran in U.S.News & World Report for 17 years.

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