Phi Beta Cons

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The Problem With Speech Codes: Even Faculty Members Can Read


Over at the Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein has been all over Penn State University for its absurd censorship of an art display. After preparing an exhibit that highlighted the culture of terrorism in the Palestinian territories, Penn State senior Joshua Stulman was allegedly told in an e-mail from visual arts professor Charles Garoian that he could not display his art because it did not “promote cultural diversity” or “opportunities for democratic dialogue.” Garoian justified his decision by referencing AD 42, the university’s “statement on nondiscrimination and harassment.”

The Penn State administration has steadfastly maintained that it did not sanction any censorship of Mr. Stulman’s work, and they deny any formal enforcement of AD 42 against Mr. Stulman. While all this may be true, it is irrelevant to one of the primary problems with university speech codes: the chilling effect.

You see, even faculty members can read, and when they see university policies that prohibit expression that depicts “members of a protected class in a stereotypical or demeaning manner” and bans “unwelcome banter, teasing, or jokes,” they will often interpret and apply those policies themselves. Students also read such policies and threaten fellow students with complaints. Not every act of speech code enforcement involves a formal proceeding in front of the administration. Faculty members, students, and staff can read policies for themselves and apply them to other members of the community in ways that rarely grab the attention of the administration. For every Josh Stulman who stands against this informal web of censorship, there are an unknown number of others who acquiesce to these misguided, informal enforcement actions.

For a university to effectively protect free speech in this era of politically correct intellectual tyranny, it must do so with easy-to-understand policies that clearly protect free expression.

Final note: Penn State student A.J. Fluehr has sued the university to overturn not just AD 42 but several other Penn State policies that violate fundamental First Amendment rights. This suit is pending in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.


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