Many campuses enforce oppressive and biased speech codes. Under these campus codes, every religious individual or person of conscience risks persecution from school personnel. But what exactly is a speech code? Speech codes are repressive policies instituted by public universities, which restrict speech by using vague and broadly worded language that almost always run contrary to students’ constitutional rights. They often make it punishable for students to speak about or distribute materials about issues that run contrary to the prevailing beliefs on campus, which are predominantly secular and politically correct in nature. However, there are no known cases where a public university’s speech code has remained unchanged after being challenged in the courtroom.
The current generation of speech codes may come in the form of highly restrictive “student conduct” policies, email policies that ban “offensive” communication, diversity statements that include provisions to punish people who engage in “intolerant expression,” or “acts of intolerance,” and, of course, the ever-present “harassment” policies aimed at “unacceptable” and “offensive” viewpoints and words. No one denies that a university can and should ban true harassment or threats, but a code that calls itself an “anti-harassment” policy does not magically free itself from its obligation to permit free speech and academic freedom.
Sadly, hundreds of American colleges and universities have speech codes, even though these codes generally violate the Constitution, state law, or their own stated policies. Many public universities adopted speech codes in the 1980s and 1990s in an effort to promote diversity on campus. Even though court after court has found these codes unconstitutional, many universities still have these policies on the books. We recommend that you investigate your university’s policies to see if it has a speech code. Remember, it may be part of your university’s code of conduct, be hidden in the language of the sexual or racial harassment policies, or be located in any number of places in your student code. The bottom line is that if the policy applies to speech and goes beyond the narrow permissible limitations on protected speech, it is likely an unconstitutional speech code. Often, prosecutions based on these codes occur behind closed doors—with no publicity—with the frightened student accepting a demeaning plea-bargain in order to avoid severe punishment. The fact that you never have heard of such a prosecution does not mean that speech is not punished on your campus. Investigate and act on behalf of freedom. Once administrations are aware that you know that they have a speech code, they will have to weigh the value of the code versus the very real possibility the courts will force them to eliminate or narrow it.