Politics & Policy

Illinois College Threatens ‘Disciplinary Proceedings’ for ‘Offensive Language’

(Photo: Darkbird77/Dreamstime)
Students will effectively lose their First Amendment rights under this policy.

Carl Sandburg College in Illinois may put students through “disciplinary proceedings” for using “offensive language” or “disparaging comments” — a policy that some argue exposes the college to First Amendment lawsuits.

According to an article in Campus Reform, the college’s Student Code of Conduct allows administrators to “initiate disciplinary proceedings against” any student who “is verbally abusive; threatens; uses offensive language; intimidates; engages in bullying, cyber bullying, or hazing; [or] uses hate speech, disparaging comments, epithets, or slurs which create a hostile environment.”

Sam Harris, vice president of policy research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told Campus Reform that the school’s status “as a public institution” would make it “highly vulnerable to a First Amendment lawsuit” over a policy like this.

“A public school certainly cannot punish students for any and all ‘offensive language’ or ‘disparaging comments,’ nor is ‘hate speech’ a legally cognizable category of speech unprotected by the First Amendment,” Harris told Campus Reform. He added that “while some speech that is offensive or hateful may also constitute threats, harassment, etc., and for that reason be unprotected, most offensive [or] hateful speech is wholly protected by the First Amendment.”

College spokesman Aaron Frey, however, defended the policy to Campus Reform, insisting that officials at the college fully realize that “being open to differing perspectives and opinions is an integral part of the educational experience and growth of students.” But the administration simply “also find[s] it important that those ideas are exchanged in a manner that is respectful and free of speech that may be deemed abusive or hateful in order to maintain a welcoming environment for our students.”

Sorry, Frey — but I’m not buying it. After all, the school’s own policy goes beyond “abusive or hateful” speech; it includes speech that is merely “offensive” — which is, by the way, an entirely subjective descriptor. The thing is, that whole “differing perspectives” ideal that Frey claims that the school values so much means that the exact same statement might be considered “offensive” to people from one perspective but acceptable — or perhaps even “virtuous” — to people from another perspective. And it’s completely inappropriate to give school administrators the authority to dole out punishments to students based on their own interpretations of something that is so subjective. Oh, and for the record: Hate speech, although disgusting, is constitutionally protected, too.

This policy is not only potentially unconstitutional, but it’s also pretty clearly absurd on a logistical level.

Here’s the bottom line: This policy pretty clearly isn’t just about punishing harassment, because there are already laws against that. This is about something more. It’s about giving administrators broader power to control the speech of students — perhaps to ensure that it stays within certain ideological limits. This policy is not only potentially unconstitutional, but it’s also pretty clearly absurd on a logistical level. Think about it: A ban on “disparaging comments”? Honestly, I’d challenge any person in the world to think of a day that went by in his or her life without a making single “disparaging comment.”

This policy places any student at Carl Sandburg College at risk of formal administrative discipline for an offense as minor as saying that they didn’t like another student’s sweater, and it needs to be rewritten. One of the greatest things about our culture, after all, is that it is supposed to err on the side of freedom. Can it be tough to find out that someone has been saying mean things about your sweater? Sure, I guess maybe for some people, but nowhere near as tough as living in a place where you can’t speak your mind.

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