Do Campus Speech Codes Stifle Students’ Freedom of Expression?

Which is more important in an academic community, an atmosphere in which anyone feels free to express any opinion or one in which no one feels persecuted or insulted? This dilemma has arisen as many colleges and universities have adopted speech codes, regulations that prohibit speech or other conduct that is abusive, threatening, or demeaning toward women, racial or ethnic minorities, or in some cases other groups as well. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, a student had to appear before a disciplinary committee after using the term “water buffaloes” when shouting at several African American women who were making noise on the street below his dorm room. At Oberlin College two Asian students brought charges against the editors of a campus humor magazine who had written a parody about Chinese food. Although both of these cases were subsequently dismissed, they illustrate the need for a clarification of what kind of speech is acceptable on a college campus and what kind, if any, is not.

Proponents of speech codes say that verbal or physical conduct that creates an intimidating or hostile environment has no place on a college campus, but strict civil libertarians argue that no limits, no matter how well meaning, should be put on speech, no matter how hurtful. Opponents have challenged speech codes in court, and a 1992 Supreme Court decision held that in public institutions racial slurs could not be prohibited as long as other kinds of slurs were allowed. Many schools, both public and private, have rewritten their speech codes in response to this decision. Even so, many students and faculty members are uncomfortable with vaguely worded prohibitions that they say can lead to prosecution for being merely tasteless or rude. (One student, for example, was recently brought in front of a disciplinary committee for saying, “Amy is so stubborn sometimes I could strangle her.”) Some also ask whether speech codes create an atmosphere on campus that inhibits rather than encourages the free exchange of ideas.