Cracking the codes

BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY

Published April 28, 2003

In a move highlighting the lack of freedom students enjoy on college campuses across the country, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education filed a suit last Tuesday against the Code of Conduct at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, a small public university 45 miles from Harrisburg. FIRE states that the current code is unconstitutional because it limits students' right to freely express themselves. This nationwide impingement on students' constitutional rights is not conducive to providing students with an excellent college experience.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for plaintiffs Jane and John Doe, who are a senior and a junior, respectively and "members of at least one expressive student organization." Within the student code at Shippensburg, vague terms attempt to define harassment "as unsolicited, unwanted conduct which annoys, threatens, or alarms a person or group." Students there are limited to holding rallies and discussions at two campus locations and are not permitted their constitutional right to assemble. Besides this restriction on students' right to peaceably rally, students must also curb their messages so as not to offend any group or student. According to the school, offending comments can range from anti-abortion slogans to race-conscious stand-up comedians.

Recently, other universities have faced conflicts regarding their student codes of conduct. Last November, the Black Law Students Association proposed the creation of a speech code at Harvard Law School that would have taken the outrageous step of restricting certain types of speech on campus. Both students and faculty vehemently opposed these codes because they would have infringed on certain constitutional freedoms of expression.

Locally, the University has revised its code often and has repeatedly been faced with opposition. In 1988, the Office of Affirmative Action released a speech code prohibiting unpopular, but none-the-less constitutionally-protected speech, such as hanging a Confederate flag and making offensive comments. The code was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court because it prohibited offensive comments about alternative lifestyles, women and race. While the University has revised the Code of Student Conduct, a document separate from the code released in 1988, and established the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities, students should be vary of any administrative manipulation of the code. The University's statement is considered one of the most restrictive codes amongst Big Ten schools because it limits students' rights in disciplinary proceedings and limits their right to open such proceedings to the public, among other restrictions.

FIRE hopes to file suits in all 12 federal appellate courts over the next year so as to obtain unconstitutional rulings on such codes across the country. Speech and conduct codes often not only suppress freedom of expression, but they also limit the free flow of information between groups. Outside of the classroom, students benefit immensely from a vibrant discourse. Restricting such discussion only dampens the college experience.