Marshall 12th Worst for “Highly Restrictive” Free Speech Policies; Dean Schedules Monday Meeting

by Tony Rutherford HuntingtonNews.Net Reporter
Marshall 12th Worst for “Highly Restrictive” Free Speech Policies; Dean Schedules Monday Meeting
Marshall University has made one of those lists you do not want to be on.

Specifically, a Top 12 list of university's that have policies that potentially violate free speech. Officially, the website, http://thefire.org called the Huntington institution's standards "highly restrictive."

Greg Lukianoff , president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), wrote, in part, in the Huffington Post: “ 12 colleges have distinguished themselves for showing particular hostility to freedom of speech. Some schools have earned this distinction by refusing to undo punishments of students and faculty for their free speech, others by engaging in ongoing campaigns against student speech, and one for regulating student speech to the hilt. Private religious colleges like DePaul make the list because they promise free speech but fail to deliver time and time again.”

Here is the list: (1) Syracuse University; (2) DePaul University, Chicago, Ill; (3) SUNY Binghamton, NY; (4) U Mass, Amherst, Mass; (5) Yale University, New Haven, Conn.; (6) Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa.; (7) Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich.; (8) Colorado College, Colorado Springs, Colo.; (9) Tufts University, Medford, Mass.; (10) Brandeis University, Waltham, Mass.; (11) John Hopkins University, Baltimore, Md.; and, finally, (12) Marshall University, Huntington, WV.

Marshall's  Dean of Student Affairs, Steve Hensley, reacted rapidly to the article published on line in The Huffington Post. A meeting has been scheduled for Monday, Jan. 31 with the Student Conduct and Welfare Board. The Code has been in place since 1985. Hensley has told media outlets, “maybe it is a little out of date. I don’t know.”

Here is the article by Samanatha Harris from FIRE’s website:


“FIRE announces its Speech Code of the Month for January 2011: Marshall University. This public university in West Virginia has so many restrictive speech codes that it is difficult to choose just one for our Speech Code of the Month. But for now, we concern ourselves with Standard 3 of Marshall's Code of Student Rights and Responsibilities. Standard 3 asserts, generally, that "Marshall University students and student groups respect and honor the human rights and dignity of other persons, groups and organizations." Following this is a list of specific violations of Standard 3, which include:

  • "Committing, conspiring to commit, or causing to be committed any act directed toward a specific person or persons with the intent and/or effect of causing physical or mental harm, injury, fear, stigma, disgrace, degradation, or embarrassment."
  • "[A]cts exhibiting prejudice and/or racism."
  • "Committing, conspiring to commit, or causing to be committed any act directed toward a specific person or persons with the intent and/or effect of stigmatizing, frightening, coercing, or demeaning that person."
  • "Incivility or disrespect of persons."
  • "Lewd, indecent, or obscene conduct or expression."

I truly cannot think of another speech code that prohibits such a staggering amount of constitutionally protected speech. You can be punished for embarrassing someone. You can be punished for disrespecting someone. You can be punished for exhibiting prejudice, even perhaps in the form of an unpopular opinion on a controversial political or social issue. You can be punished for telling crude jokes. This policy covers so much speech that it seems there is very little speech for which Marshall University can't punish you.

Legally speaking, of course, Marshall University can't punish you for any of this, because it is a public university obligated to uphold the guarantees of the First Amendment. And as we warned college presidents across the country (including Marshall President Stephen Kopp) in a letter sent just before the close of 2010, student free speech rights are so clearly established that college administrators may face personal liability for monetary damages if they violate those rights.

For these reasons, Marshall University is our January 2011 Speech Code of the Month. If you believe that your college's or university's policy should be a Speech Code of the Month, please e-mail speechcodes@thefire.org with a link to the policy and a brief description of why you think attention should be drawn to this code. If you are a current college student or faculty member interested in free speech, consider joining FIRE's Campus Freedom Network, which consists of college faculty members and students dedicated to advancing individual liberties on their campuses.” (See: http://thefire.org/article/12701)

Although Marshall just squeaked into the list, FIRE’s president argued that additional policies severely hamper free expression, including “micromanaging too much,” attempting to hold students accountable for off-campus expression, advance permission for a demonstration, and computer restrictions on “objectionable” materials.

As stated in the Huffington Post by Lukianoff:

“When it comes to on-campus demonstrations, the Dean of Students must approve the "purpose" of any proposed demonstration in advance of the event. Students in the residence halls are prohibited from posting anything containing "profanity" or "other offensive material." Students using computers on campus are also prohibited from viewing any "objectionable" material in public places. These policies reach into almost every conceivable aspect of student life at Marshall and severely restrict the First Amendment rights to which students at Marshall are legally entitled.”

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