Our latest newsletter highlights the prevalence of university speech codes and the “you can’t say that” atmosphere they create on campus. These speech codes—which about 65% of public universities have on the books—forbid students from saying anything that university administrators deem offensive, intolerant, or emotionally upsetting. Taken literally and applied across the board, these policies would shut down virtually all discourse on campus (including even presidential debates), turning the “marketplace of ideas” into a ghost town. But they are only enforced selectively to silence particular viewpoints, usually conservative and Christian ones. To university administrators, secular or leftist speech is “provocative” or “challenging” and thus celebrated as essential to the academy. But conservative or Christian ideas are “offensive” or even “hateful,” threaten the university community, and so the students espousing them must either be silenced or sanctioned. So in practice, speech codes allow university officials to decide what ideas can be expressed on campus and to punish anyone who says anything that they do not want students to hear.
Of course, one might wonder whether these dangers are just theoretical. Our newsletter describes how speech codes stifle speech, but Fordham University provides a recent, vivid example of this speech code mentality. College Republicans at Fordham invited Ann Coulter to campus. Unsurprisingly, this sparked significant controversy on campus, leading Fordham’s president, Rev. Joseph McShane, to chastise the group publicly. In a statement, he wrote: “To say that I am disappointed with the judgment and maturity of the College Republicans . . . would be a tremendous understatement.” Why? In his eyes, Ann Coulter’s “rhetoric is often hateful and needlessly provocative—more heat than light—and her message is aimed squarely at the darker side of our nature.” In fact, it constitutes “[h]ate-speech, name-calling, and incivility,” causing him to feel both “disgust” and “great contempt.”
Sadly, in the face of this campus outrage and presidential belittling, College Republicans wilted, rescinded its invitation, cancelled the event, and apologized for sparking controversy. And President McShane duly congratulated its contrite leaders because they “acted quickly, took responsibility for their decisions, and expressed their regrets sincerely and eloquently.”
Of course, as a Catholic institution, Fordham is not obligated to protect free speech like a public university must, but President McShane’s response to this lecture still illustrates the “you can’t say that” mentality embodied in speech codes. He decided that Ann Coulter’s ideas and method of expressing them had no place at Fordham, and he used the bully pulpit of his office to scold and manipulate students into silencing themselves. Yet his handwringing about “Fordham’s values” is incredibly selective. After all, a Fordham professor invited Peter Singer—the infanticide-advocating Princeton professor—to lecture on campus, and some law professors are demanding funding for the theatrical pornography of The Vagina Monologues. Yet curiously, President McShane has not issued any statements questioning the “judgment and maturity” of these leftists and their events.
Whether the tool is shaming or sanctions, the goal of speech codes and the mentality that flows from them is the same: to limit campus discourse only to those voices and viewpoints that academia deems acceptable. But the First Amendment has a different goal: to promote full, free, and unfettered debate. And when students are willing to take a stand, university administrators discover a startling truth: when speech codes collide with the First Amendment, speech codes lose.
If you face unconstitutional speech codes on your campus give us a call at 1-800-835-5233 or email us here.