6.8.09

THE FREE SPEECH ZONE IS A WORK AREA. In time for the start of the new academic year, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has awarded the Speech Code of the Month honor to Northern Illinois University.

In the NIU Student Code of Conduct, "harassment" is defined as the "Intentional and wrongful use of words, gestures and actions to annoy, alarm, abuse, embarrass, coerce, intimidate or threaten another person." (Emphasis added.) NIU is a public university, which means it is legally obligated to protect its students' First Amendment rights. Someone over at NIU clearly needs a First Amendment refresher course, because this policy fails miserably, prohibiting large swaths of constitutionally protected expression. While the university may legitimately prevent students from threatening and intimidating one another, it most certainly cannot prohibit students from annoying and embarrassing one another, even intentionally. In fact, satire and parody-which are entitled to particularly strong constitutional protection-are frequently profoundly embarrassing and annoying to their targets.
Yes, but the Fun-Suckers are well entrenched in Student Affairs and all the other usual places.
NIU's policy is a perfect example of the culture that prevails on so many college campuses nowadays, in which there is a presumed right to be free not only from truly disruptive harassment, but also from anything that causes annoyance, discomfort, or offense. Universities' attempts to protect this fictitious "right not to be offended" are harmful on several fronts. First, they undermine the whole notion of the American university as a "marketplace of ideas," where students learn not by rote but by exposure to a variety of different opinions expressed in a variety of different ways-including opinions and forms of expression that may be offensive. Second, they leave students ill-prepared for life after college, when one cannot simply run crying to the nearest dean over every perceived slight or embarrassment. 
So it's not just that NIU, as a public university, cannot maintain a policy like this-although that is, of course, very important, and the university leaves itself vulnerable to a First Amendment lawsuit by doing so. It's also that NIU, as a university that claims to value the rights of free speech and expression, shouldn't maintain a policy like this, because in addition to the legal wrong, it is doing its students a grave disservice. For this reason, NIU is our August 2009 Speech Code of the Month.
It is the Foundation's practice to send notice to university's counsel that the speech code has been recognized as Speech Code of the Month. I trust that the communication also calls headquarters' attention to the Free Speech Zone. The Blogger search function is still Bloggered. But check out RED ALERT and FREE SPEECH ZONE, OR SCARCE RESOURCE for earlier commentary. Perhaps the ribbon-cutting for the renovated central commons will include an announcement that hereafter the entire campus is a free speech zone.

(Disclaimer: I'm a long time supporter (THE WORD GETS OUT) of the Foundation, and it's possible that I invented the speech code widget.)

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