The University of Montana Western has a policy that allows for punishing students for “mean” words or “facial expressions” — and that punishment could technically be as severe as expulsion.
“While discussions may become heated and passionate, they should never become mean, nasty or vindictive in spoken or printed or emailed words, facial expressions, or gestures,” states the Student Code of Conduct.
Another area of the code states that “committing any act prohibited by this Code of Conduct may result in expulsion or suspension from the University unless specific and mitigating factors are present.”
“Factors to be considered in mitigation may include the present attitude and past disciplinary record of the offender, as well as the nature of the offense and the severity of any damage, injury, or harm resulting from it,” the code continues.
Unsurprisingly, the pro-free-speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has expressed some concerns over this policy — especially considering the fact that the University of Montana Western is a public (read: taxpayer-funded) university.
“A great deal of constitutionally protected expression could be punished under this policy, like a tweet that criticizes the university administration, or the expression of those who take up the ‘nasty woman’ moniker, a rally cry made popular after then-candidate Donald Trump used the term to describe Hillary Clinton,” a post on FIRE’s website states.
Furthermore, as FIRE also points out, what is or is not “mean” or “uncivil” in terms of speech is an entirely subjective matter. For example: One person might like being called “skinny,” while another might take it as an insult. The same goes for facial expressions. Personally, I’m not big on smiling, and I’ve been told that my “resting face” can be a bit unwelcoming. I’ve had many people tell me that, upon meeting me, they assumed I did not like them because of the expression that I wear on my face. In other words, many people have interpreted my normal resting face as having a “mean” expression. Under this policy, as a student at this school, my very face could possibly be enough to get me expelled — and I certainly don’t think that’s appropriate.
Now, of course, I don’t think the university would actually expel me for my resting bitch face. After all, the code does clarify that the nature of the punishment would depend on “the nature of the offense,” and I highly doubt that even the strictest administrator would consider my face looking how my face looks to be something bad enough to warrant such a severe punishment. The thing is, though, this policy would allow them to do so — and that’s completely unfair and ridiculous.
Nobody likes a mean person, and it certainly is better to be nice. The truth is, however, there is nothing nice about restricting students’ speech — and, as FIRE points out, the very existence of this policy in itself might be enough to do just that.
“Even if these civility policies aren’t applied to punish protected speech in practice, they’re still likely to have a chilling effect on speech, as students reading the policy will self-censor and avoid controversial expression rather than taking that risk,” the website’s post states.
I agree with these concerns. College is supposed to be a place where students can freely express ideas, challenge others’ ideas, and learn from those experiences. This is a very important way for students to grow intellectually, as well as emotionally, and colleges should have conduct codes that protect these values rather than threatening them.
This story was previously covered in an article in Campus Reform.