By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education helped score a win for Freedom of Speech on the campus of North Carolina State University this month as officials there modified the school’s Civility Statement to show that it was not intended to “interfere in any way with an individual’s academic or personal freedoms.”
A year ago, the University’s housing department issued a policy that demanded that campus residents “be civil with each other,” and prohibited students from displaying items or using technology that might be “hurtful” or “disrespectful” to others.
When student and resident assistant (RA) Derek Spicer contacted FIRE with his concerns about the policy, the Philadelphia-based foundation wrote to N.C. State Chancellor Randy Woodson telling him the rules betrayed First Amendment freedoms and forced RAs to violate students’ rights. Citing a number of Supreme Court cases, the letter said the university’s policy was void for vagueness, prohibited a “wide swath of constitutionally protected expression,” and would result in a “chilling effect” on free speech.
“While there may be well-intentioned reasons to prefer the calm of politically correct speech to potential conflict and dispute, such a preference runs contrary to the very principles behind our Bill of Rights,” wrote Robert Shibley, FIRE’s senior vice president, as he challenged the policy and offered specific ways that the University could encourage students to aspire to civility without trampling on their fundamental rights.
“Certainly the Christian Action League believes that folks should be civil. Polite and courteous behavior and speech is something the world needs more of,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “But the problem with these speech codes on college campuses is that it is always subjective as to what exactly is ‘offensive’ or what is ‘intolerant.’ That could mean one thing to you and
something very different to me. We’ve got to be willing to risk being offended if we’re going to retain our God-given right to speak freely in America.”
The NCSU Civility Statement demanded that students “create a community in which actions of bigotry, oppression and hatred will not be tolerated” and that they “confront behavior to report to staff incidents of incivility and intolerance.”
“If a student displays a graphic picture of an aborted baby in her dorm room on a poster decrying the murder of the unborn, is that disrespectful and hurtful to her roommate who is pro-choice?” Dr. Creech asked. “What if a student takes the Biblical stance on homosexuality? Is he intolerant?”
He said he is glad to hear that N.C. State has changed its policy, now making it clear that freedom of expression will not be inhibited and simply recommending the civility standards.
According to FIRE, NCSU is far from alone in its unconstitutional attempts to control student speech.
“Of 392 schools surveyed, 65 percent maintain severely restrictive, ‘red light’ speech codes,” the Foundation reported in its 2012 assessment. But the situation is not as bad as it has been, as that percentage is down from 75 percent four years ago.
In North Carolina, 42 percent of schools surveyed were given a “red light” rating, showing that they had at least one policy clearly and substantially restricting freedom of speech or that they barred public access to their speech-related policies. According to FIRE, speech codes gained popularity with college administrators in the 1980s and 1990s, but many have been successfully challenged
“While many colleges and universities might seem at times to believe they exist in a vacuum, the truth is that neither our nation’s courts nor its citizens look favorably upon speech codes or other restrictions on basic freedoms,” FIRE reported.