By Margarita Potapova
“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” A timeless statement and objectively the most important amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The First Amendment, an inalienable right, is now under attack across hundreds of college campuses nationwide.
USLegal Dictionary defines a “speech code” as a “rule or regulation that limits, restricts, or bans speech beyond the strict legal limitations upon freedom of speech or press.” All speech is protected under the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment with few exceptions limited to fighting words, obscenity, and words that create a clear and present danger (i.e. shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre). Ironically, for decades, universities have continued to maintain the practice of attempting to restrict “offensive” speech on campus through the implementation of vague, indeterminable codes of, so to speak, “anti-harassment.”
The concept of speech codes is relatively dated, making its way into our institutions of higher education in the early seventies. Students and faculty members have been fighting the censorship wave since Healy v. James (1972), which became the first court case to establish that students’ rights to freedom of speech off campus extend to the grounds of their alma mater. Healy was followed closely by decisions Papish v. Board of Curators of University of Missouri (1973), Doe v. University of Michigan (1989), McCauley v. the University of the Virgin Islands (2010) and countless others. Case after case, speech codes have failed the test of constitutionality in court. To an extent, the fight for the fundamental right to express ourselves has gained success, but the call of the twenty-first century’s self-proclaimed Big Brother, the Far Left, is cause for concern.
In a study of over 400 of the largest and most distinguished universities the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) found that some 32.3% continue to uphold “red light” policies limiting student speech while 58.6% universities received a “yellow light” rating; indicating that an overwhelming 419 out of the 461 schools surveyed, “chill or outright prohibit protected speech”.
Binghamton University among them, received a “yellow light” rating based on policies directed at bias, hate speech, protest and demonstration, posting and distribution, harassment, and security fees. Although this university has a beautifully written statement illustrating a commitment to the protection of First Amendment Rights on campus, it is questionable whether these values are truly being upheld. In “9 Points on First Amendment Protection” outlined by the University Ombudsman, subpoint i. affirms the notion that Binghamton University “allows all views, popular or unpopular, to be expressed, debated, supported, and countered”. However, this is hard to believe following the reaction to the Review’s March 2018 issue and countless others in its history. The threat of being defunded and disassembled as a student organization on campus prompted the Review to preemptively take down its infamous article, outrageously titled “Standard Fuck Parties, Bug Chasing, and Homosexuality.” Despite the provocative nature of the article and its intent, there are no legal ramifications that could justify what would be cause for eliciting its removal.
To directly quote Chris Block from our beloved publication PipeDream, “Organizations [referring to the Review] should not receive any funding if they encourage hate speech toward any community, regardless of personal opinion…” Not to go down the wormhole of what constitutes hate speech, but in short, it is protected by the Constitution and by Binghamton University as an arm of the State. The Ombudsman addresses this exact issue in subpoint v. and again in subpoint ix., “The University cannot and does not limit freedom of speech even if an individual’s values and ideals are challenged by that speech…Any attempt on the part of the University to suppress offensive views is nothing more than government censorship.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom observes that a public university “may not prohibit speech simply because the opinions expressed are deemed to be racist, sexist, homophobic, hateful, harassing, offensive, intimidating, controversial, provocative, indecent… Administrators cannot regulate speech solely based on its content…” Protecting the ears of the listener/reader at the cost of the inherent right to speak one’s mind is a tradeoff few would call fair. The dissemination of all ideas, no matter how controversial, is critical to the development and maintenance of a democratic society. One could argue this is even more crucial in a college environment. If thought was homogenous, the world as we know it would cease to exist. One knows right because one also knows wrong. There is no justice without injustice.
Just as you, dear reader, are free to pick up this issue and read and critique it, you are also free to abstain from reading it. The choice to do either is ultimately in your hands. You can take these words with a grain of salt or as food for thought, or not consume them whatsoever, but these words are free to exist on these pages. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words, words could never hurt you.