The Collegian
Thursday, March 30, 2023

Free speech on campus

Richmond College '10

In the wake of the derogatory e-mail by a U of R fraternity member, a thorough discourse has arisen within the hallways, classrooms and organized forums here on campus. The Collegian as well has played an important role in providing yet another outlet for students to sound off about the controversy. One of the areas in which I have heard a lot of competing theories and contradictory explanations is how this issue connects with freedom of speech guaranteed under our Constitution's First Amendment. Some have postulated that the administration has overreacted and overstepped its bounds. Others have cried for a more comprehensive set of guidelines restricting hateful and insulting forms of expression. Understanding the nuanced application of our Constitution and how it relates to controversies within our community is important in educating advocates on all sides of such an issue.

Freedom of speech and expression certainly has been a long-standing point of contention within our nation's society, courts and even college campuses. Many universities have long used a tool known as a "speech code" to limit the use of certain types of speech and conduct. The foundation for such a code rests on a precedent from the 1942 Supreme Court case Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire. Out of this case came the "fighting words" doctrine which stipulated certain speech was not protected under the First Amendment. According to the Chaplinsky decision, "These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous and the insulting or 'fighting words,' those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace." Since this decision, the courts have heard numerous cases dealing with "fighting words," and have generally upheld the provision while simultaneously narrowing its scope.

The controversy over speech codes continues to be hotly contested and argued over in the realm of public universities. Public universities in fact are considered similar to governmental institutions in that they are required to protect free speech. Thus the inevitable clashing of ideologies can be seen in the delicate balancing act concerning just how much speech can be censored.

For those of us at UR, this is a mute issue. UR is, of course, a private institution and thus is not held to the same First Amendment principles as public institutions. Private universities basically follow the standards that they themselves decide to formulate. Thus, the next natural place of investigation would be UR's Student handbook and specifically its section on "Student Conduct." Although I could not locate any specific "speech code" for our school, the handbook was consistent in its description of what types of behavior are acceptable - and what types are not. While the statement pledges its recognition of individual rights, it still reserves the ability to limit certain types of conduct. Specifically, it mentions the right to "freedom of inquiry," "freedom of thought" and "freedom of discussion and expression ..." However, such an individual "must not identify his or her position or actions as representing the university".

If the statement were to stop here then it would be difficult to ascertain how UR could take any action against those who are simply speaking their mind and expressing their thoughts. The statement continues, though, by stating "individual or group conduct ...that disrupts or interferes with the educational process ... cannot be tolerated." Despite the ambiguity of what exactly stipulates "educational process," the confusion is cleared up under the "Disruption" clause that resides in the "Prohibited Conduct" section of our handbook. Among the forms of conduct that the university can seek disciplinary action toward are "obscene conduct or expression."

Perhaps such subtleties are only of interest to constitutional law junkies or legal scholars. I would hope, however, that members of the greater Richmond community really are interested in the rights they have and the boundaries they must tow. U of R does have mechanisms in place for prohibiting certain types of speech, given our university is a private institution. One of the issues that is beginning to arise in our country is the federal funding that private institutions are receiving. This has already been confronted in Title IX cases, including one concerning UR's athletics department in 1982, and thus will likely shift to free speech debates in the future. If private institutions receive federal funding in the realm of grants and scholarship aids, does this still make them an exclusively private entity? If not, then does this mean that private institutions that receive federal funds should be treated similarly to public institutions and thus more obligated to protect free speech across the board?

While Richmond's current status as "private" protects it legally, it would be both bold and invigorating for our student body to use the local e-mail incident to reflect upon college free speech at large. Such "incidents" are not unique to our campus and thus deserve a larger discourse regarding the freedom to express our opinions and the limits that are necessary on such expression.

Contact writer Jarrett Dieterle at

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