Free speech org calls out colleges banning insults, profane language

A similar policy under scrutiny by the organization prohibits emails that “insult” others.

A free speech org is sounding the alarm on a university’s policy against “Fliers containing content that would be considered offensive to a reasonable person.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education consistently sounds the alarm on free speech violations on American college campuses. 

Recently, the organization has been pointing out university speech codes that are simply too broad to be conducive to free expression on campus. This month, FIRE is calling out Fordham University, noting that the public university in New York has an internet use policy that imposes “broad restrictions that apply to the use of university email and other online resources — which would include materials sent from a student’s off-campus location.”

The policy prohibits “[u]sing any IT Resource, including email or other communication system to intimidate, insult, embarrass, or harass others,” and FIRE says that while this may not be commendable behavior, speech that might be embarrassing and insulting to others “includes a great deal of protected speech.”

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FIRE’s February Speech Code of the Month focused on a similarly broad policy at Frostburg State University, specifically the university’s guidelines for what kind of material can be displayed by students in residence halls. 

Frostburg’s Residence Hall guidelines explain that no fliers or other literature can be posted if the material contains “content that would be considered offensive to a reasonable person (e.g. nudity, obscenities,etc.)" FIRE explains that while content legally considered “obscene” can sometimes be reasonably limited, “obscenities” denotes words considered to be profanity, which is “protected speech.”

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FIRE describes defining when speech is considered obscene through the three-step “Miller Test." The test is conducted by evaluating, “Whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest”, “Whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct;”, and “Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

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“Flyers that are offensive to a reasonable person or that include nudity or obscenities, as that plural noun is usually defined, don’t necessarily meet all three prongs of that test,” explained FIRE. 

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