The “discrimination and harassment policy” of Southeastern Louisiana University lists “offensive jokes,” “posters,” “cartoons,” and “drawings” as “prohibited conduct” that can be considered “harassment.”
“This conduct need not have intent to harm; if severe enough, it does not have to
consist of repeated incidents; and it need not be directed against a specific individual/group of
Individuals,” the school’s policy states.
As The College Fix notes, the university has received a “Red Light” rating from the pro-free-speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education — a rating reserved for schools that have “at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech.” FIRE’s senior program officer Laura Beltz told The Fix that, although she did not know of any students who had recently been disciplined under the policy, that doesn’t mean that the existence of such a restrictive policy was harmless.
“It’s important to remember that, even when not enforced, policies that restrict constitutionally protected expression have an impermissible chilling effect on speech,” Beltz told The Fix. “To use two policies at Southeastern Louisiana as an example, students may be discouraged from expressing themselves if they read a policy that requires registration of expressive activities a full seven days in advance, or one that calls things like ‘offensive jokes’ punishable harassment.”
Beltz is absolutely right. Whether students are actually being punished under this policy or not, its very existence could be enough to shut them up for fear that they will be punished. It is, after all, very restrictive — for a couple of reasons.
For one thing, the term “offensive” is completely subjective. What one person might find “offensive,” another might consider completely innocuous. Making students subject to punishment over something that is so unclear is, quite frankly, totally unfair — because it leaves plenty of room for bias in enforcement.
For another thing, I just don’t see how something like an “offensive” cartoon constitutes harassment. When I was in college, my friends and I used to meet every Wednesday and watch the new episode of South Park. According to this policy, we were all basically harassing each other with the very existence of these viewing parties. South Park could, after all, easily be deemed an “offensive” cartoon.
The thing is, though, the vast majority of college students are adults. Shouldn’t most adults be able to handle seeing a cartoon — even an “offensive” one — without needing to report it as “harassment” to the university? I mean, I know people who might even find Bob’s Burgers or The Simpsons “offensive.” Could an adult student get in trouble for viewing these cartoons somewhere in a public place at the university? It’s true: According to this policy, doing something like viewing The Simpsons in a public area on campus could be enough for a student to be found guilty of “harassment” — and I don’t think that anyone would consider that to be reasonable or just.
Southeastern Louisiana University is a public university, and its students are supposed to have First Amendment rights. It claims that the aim of its current policy is to ensure that the administration is “maintaining an educational and workplace environment free of any type of discrimination and/or harassment which is illegal and which will not be tolerated,” but it’s clear that the scope of this policy clearly goes far beyond what’s “illegal” — and the policy should be changed for the sake of the protection of these students’ free speech.