St. Louis' Washington University: Free Speech For All!* (*At The Sole Discretion Of School Administration)

from the all-speech-is-free,-but-some-speech-is-free-er-than-others dept

For some reason, institutes of higher education seem to have the urge to treat budding adults as guileless children, proactively covering their ears and eyes lest something offensive rear its ugly head and slap them soundly right in their shielded sensibilities. Critical thinking is a skill that's supposed to be cultivated throughout a person's formative years, but thanks to a variety of overprotective school speech policies (often ostensibly aimed at preventing bullying) that begin in grade school and continue throughout post-secondary education, many children are emerging into adulthood, fully unaware that the world meshes well with the cloistered existence they've enjoyed for the last 12-16 years.

The other strange aspect of these speech-restricting policies is that universities consider themselves champions of liberal (in the classic sense of the word) education, broadening horizons and opening minds while preparing the youth of today for the future. These days, hardly anything is "broad" or "open." Instead, students are placed on a narrow path that has been polished to a high sheen by misguided idealism.

FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has been tracking First Amendment-violating university speech policies for well over a decade. A lot of overly broad policies have been discussed, but few achieve the dissonance that St. Louis' Washington University's conflicting speech-related policies do.

Washington University is a private university, which gives it a bit more leeway in terms of restricting free speech. Despite this fact, the university has declared its students can enjoy freedom of expression while enrolled.

The introduction to the university's University Student Judicial Code (PDF) explicitly states:

Freedom of thought and expression is essential to the University's academic mission. Nothing in this Code should be construed to limit the free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints, even if that exchange proves to be offensive, distasteful, disturbing, or denigrating to some.
If Washington U. had stopped here, there'd be no story. This is an admirable policy, one that guarantees students free expression, something many institutions are hesitant to do because free speech can often be "offensive, distasteful, disturbing or denigrating."

So, what's the problem? Well, it's tough to square the "essentialness" of freedom of thought and expression with other parts of Washington U's student policy handbook.

WUSTL's Residence Life Policies and Procedures define "harassment" as:
... any behavior or conduct that is injurious, or potentially injurious to a person's physical, emotional, or psychological well-being, as determined at the sole discretion of the University. Such behavior is subject to disciplinary action.
Washington U says "nothing in this code should be construed to limit the free and open exchange of ideas." I suppose that's technically true. This limitation of the "free and open exchange of ideas" occurs in a separate section of the student policies. This anti-bullying clause overrides the Student Code, turning it into an Animal Farm-esque piece of policymaking. "Students are entitled to freedom of thought and expression at the sole discretion of the University." Apparently, freedom's just another word for "THIS MESSAGE APPROVED BY THE ADMINISTRATORS OF WUSTL."

Not only is the message being sent to students completely schizophrenic, but this policy is nothing more than administrative abuse waiting to happen.
If you really think about the wording of WUSTL's policy, it allows the administration to punish an almost unlimited amount of speech and expression. Any conduct that is even "potentially injurious" to a person's "emotional ... well-being," as determined at the sole discretion of the university? How is any student supposed to ascertain what the university means by these terms? On their face, they could mean anything from hurt feelings to serious emotional distress. And who gets to exercise the "sole discretion" of the university? Is it always the same person, or might it vary case by case, depending on the parties involved? If I were a student in WUSTL's residence halls, I would be afraid to engage in any rigorous or controversial debate for fear of running afoul of this exceptionally broad policy.
By adding this broadly written policy, WUSTL will most likely will have no concerns about people "abusing" their "right" to free expression. This self-granted power is a preemptive attack on potentially offensive speech, with definitions so broad nearly anything said in a heated discussion could be included. FIRE asks how you can square one policy with the other. The fact is: you can't. One of these policies needs to go, and it's the policy that places students' right to free speech in the hands of ad hoc censors. Washington University can't have it both ways. Either it's for protecting free speech or it's for protecting students from being offended, but it simply cannot claim it's somehow doing both.


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  1. identicon
    S. T. Stone, 11 Apr 2013 @ 3:38am

    Re:

    You misunderstand the concept of Free Speech.

    Under the First Amendment, the government cannot deny you the right to say whatever you wish (save for extreme cases such as calls to violence and possessing/distributing child pornography). Any governmental entity that tries to stop you from expressing yourself will run afoul of the protections afforded to citizens via both the First Amendment and decades of SCOTUS decisions.

    In other words: if you want to call me a Nazi-loving jerkoff, not even the President can legally stop you from doing it.

    Private entities, on the other hand, can stop you from saying whatever you wish because they donít have to play by the same rule. Facebook can bar you from its service for sharing sexually-charged images, and you canít say it has truly Ďcensoredí your right to expression because it banned you. Facebook doesnít exist as a governmental entity, which means it can ban you from its service for whatever reason, and you have to suck it up and move on.

    The same goes for a living, breathing person who kicks you out of their home because you called them a Nazi-loving jerkoff: they havenít denied you the right to express yourself just because they donít want to hear you do it. You can go to another friend's house and call that first friend a Nazi-loving jerkoff, or go to Facebook and call that first friend a Nazi-loving jerkoff, or anywhere else that will allow you to say ĎNazi-loving jerkoffí, so you donít lack options for avenues of self-expression just because you got kicked out of that first friendís house.

    In other words: you have the right to express yourself, but you donít have the right to force someone to give you a place to do it.

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