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
    Stephen Feingold, 11 Apr 2013 @ 4:47am

    Free speech

    The writer submits that the Wash U's policy sends an ambiguous message about free speech. And chides institutions of higher learning for treating adults like children. But I can't help wondering if the writer is not looking for some "cause" Even the Supreme Court says fee speech does not mean screaming "fire" in an auditorium. In our current culture harassment and bullying are significant issues that are prevalent at many colleges.
    Yes, I agree that as written the policy could be used to suppress legitimate speech. But there is no evidence of any such abuse at Wash U. As a private institute I will give them a pass until there is some evidence of abuse. At the very least I would save such harsh words until I heard that when asked about the seeming contradiction the reply showed some lack of awareness of the thin line they are walking. But to lash out when the positive intent behind the "contradiction" is so obvious suggests to me a lack of sensitivity about harassment and bullying.

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