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Speech Code?

FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, rates Williams as yellow light, meaning as being among “those institutions with at least one ambiguous policy that too easily encourages administrative abuse and arbitrary application.”

Is that a fair rating?

Note that FIRE seems to be an honestly non-partisan organization. When a college has no speech code, then FIRE recognizes that fact, as it did recently for Dartmouth.

Recall the Queer Bash Email controversy (more here, here) of 2 years ago in which two Williams students sent out “abusive” e-mails in response to an all-campus e-mail about the annual Queer Bash party. What was the result of that case? I don’t think that the administration ever took any action.

Regardless, I would like to see FIRE give Williams a green light. Does Williams deserve one? I think that doing so would only require a forthright statement from the Administration to the fact that free speech does not end at the top of Spring Street.

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#1 Comment By hwc On May 19, 2005 @ 1:07 pm

I am always wary about the intellectual integrity of organizations such as speechcodes.org. In their efforts to play “gotcha”, they are not always fair and balanced. Here’s an example:

They give Swarthmore a “red light”, quoting the following portion of the harrassment policy from the college catalog. However, they conveniently omit a key portion of the paragraph. I’ve reproduced the full paragraph below. The regular typeface is the section that speechcodes.org quoted. The bold type is the section that speechcodes.org conveniently omitted:

The College seeks to sustain an environment in which harassment has no place. Those who harass others will be subject to serious sanctions.

Definition, principles, and criteria. Harassment can take many forms, and it needs to be emphasized that harassment can be and often is nonphysical, including words, pictures, gestures, and other forms of expression. To count as harassment, such expression must be reasonably regarded as (a) taunting,1 vilifying,2 or degrading3 whether (b) directed at individuals or groups (subject to the clarification and qualification below) and (c) where reasonable people may suppose that such expression harms its target(s) by substantially interfering with their educational opportunities, peaceful enjoyment of residence and community, or terms of employment. Further, to count as harassment subject to possible formal grievance procedures, such expression must (d) be taken either with the intent to interfere with the protected interests mentioned in (c), above, or with reckless disregard to the nature of the conduct. Such intent or recklessness must be inferred from all the circumstances. Finally, (e) such expression must be repeated and persistent. To be “repeated and persistent,” the offending conduct must have been brought to the attention of the defendant (though not necessarily by the complainant), be of the same kind, and repeated. There are two reasons for adding (e): first, the College wishes to have the opportunity to educate those who may not realize that certain expression constitutes harassment; second, by requiring that the expression be repeated and persistent, the College helps establish intent or recklessness. However: (f) before any expression can be considered for possible formal grievance procedures, it must be clear that no substantial free expression interests are threatened by bringing a formal charge of harassing expression. This strict criterion for possible formal grievance procedures must be imposed to ensure that the College does nothing that would tend to diminish free expression or compromise principles of academic freedom in the vigorous and often contentious examination and criticism of ideas, works of art, and political activity that marks Swarthmore College.

I think it’s pretty clear that the omitted portion directly pertains to freedom of speech and changes the perception of the policy rather dramatically in a way that does not suit speechcode.org’s agenda. An oversight in selecting the quote? I don’t think so.

#2 Comment By hwc On May 20, 2005 @ 11:59 am

BTW, as I was reading the speechcodes.org materials, it became obvious that their agenda is relevant to the recent racial epithet incident on campus. FIRE’s position is that a campus with any kind of regulation against such a verbal assault would earn it a “red light” rating for restrictions against free speech. Yelling “F&^k you, N$&&@r” across the Science Quad lawn would be viewed as a protected statement of political expression (presumably anti-Affirmative Action and anti-diversity) and could not be punished. Essentially, they are saying that administrators and judicial panels at what they call “America’s increasingly repressive and partisan colleges and universities” are incapable of making a distinction between legitimate expression and verbal assault/harrassment. Therefore, any regulations in this area are automatically taboo.

Seems to me that this sort of rigid black and white logic is every bit as silly as the “Political Correctness” it seeks to combat.

What happened to the appreciation for shades of gray in political discourse? Where is the appreciation for historical context? Where is the consideration for what these colleges actually do rather than some hypothetical bogeyman? The FIRE organization’s interpretation of college rulebooks appear to be in a similar vein as the old McCarthy “looking for a commie pinko behind every tree” mentality.

#3 Comment By Rory On May 21, 2005 @ 5:18 am

I’m not the resident lawyer of ephblog (I’m not even headed to the right type of school), so mayhaps Lowell or someone can clarify this, but here’s the ONLY quoted policy from williams (they linked to pdf’s of other policies, but they actually quoted this, so I assumed that this is their most important example):

The term sexual harassment covers a broad range of behavior. Examples of the forms it can take include sexually offensive remarks or conduct; repeated or persistent remarks, jokes, or other actions that are demeaning to one’s sex or sexual orientation; unwanted physical contact; requests or demands for sexual favors accompanied by implicitly or explicitly promised rewards or threatened punishment; attempted or completed physical sexual assault. Behavior that constitutes sexual harassment is actionable under the College’s discrimination grievance procedures.

This sounds a lot like, well, an accepted definition of sexual harrassment. Would it really be worse for Williams were it to not have said quote, or in some way offer a “freedom of speech” outlet for the co-worker or student who repeatedly expresses his admiration for a woman’s physical appearance in offensive ways (or switch genders, or same-gender, whichever)? And what would the lawsuit that Williams would get smacked with cost for us to get a “green light” when s/he sues?

As hwc notes, this is some serious hunt, search, gotcha stuff.

#4 Comment By hwc On May 21, 2005 @ 11:48 pm

The FIRE organization’s search and destroy mission extends to any college statement or regulation that COULD be interpreted as a speech code, no matter how much of a stretch.

Here’s another example from their “red light” analysis at Swarthmore:

As within the Swarthmore College community, lives of residential students are to be governed by good taste and accepted practice rather than elaborate rules.

This is from the residential dorm policy handbook. This has absolutely nothing to do with speech codes, but rather refers to a longstanding college policy of NOT establishing a bunch of formal rules (alcohol bans, etc.) governing dorms. The quoted passage is not some secret handshake, black helicopters flying over the horizon, code for nefarious restrictions on free speech. In is, in fact, quite literal. The college expects its students to behave more or less like civilized human beings and to police themselves and, as long as they do, the college has no desire to institute or enforce a laundry list of regulations. It is actually a statement OF freedom, not AGAINST freedom.

Actually, the whole notion of restricting speech is kind of ironic seeing as how Swarthmore pulled its entire student body out of the federal aid program back when Senator McCarthy passed legislation requiring loyalty oaths as a condition of federal aid. The college felt so strongly that students have the freedom to believe whatever they want that they replaced the federal aid, dollar for dollar, out of pocket for several years until the McCarthy regulation was repealed under the Kennedy administration.