Students’ free speech

Many student conduct codes allow college officials to have too much power.

by Derek Olson

Arizona State University  expelled the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity last week after it held a Martin Luther King, Jr.-themed party. Pictures surfaced on social media of students dressed in hip-hop style clothing with hashtags invoking black stereotypes. To say the least, it was an inappropriate way to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

ASU officials said they may place further consequences on the students who attended the event under the conduct code. At first, it may seem fitting that these students see punishment, but it’s important to be wary of what kind of precedent the university sets. Should free expression be restricted merely because some consider it offensive? Doing so is completely contrary to our nation’s principles. 

The TKE chapter said none of its members officially planned the event. Just 16 of its 125 members attended at a private location. Nonetheless, the national headquarters for TKE revoked the chapter’s charter, officially dissolving the chapter, at least temporarily. However, ASU officials said they have permanently prohibited the organization from ever returning. This punishment seems curiously unfitting. A few individuals make fools of themselves, and an otherwise reputable organization suffers a life sentence with no chance of parole.

This incident is an example of the arbitrary power university administrators have over students due to vague and overreaching student conduct codes. Earlier this month, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) released a study of 427 American schools, including 323 public colleges and Universities. It found 59 percent had policies that, in its view, severely infringe upon students’ right to free speech.

FIRE gave seven out of 10 colleges in Minnesota, including the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, a “red light,’” the worst of three ratings.

While state colleges are public institutions and must abide by the First Amendment, private colleges are not public actors. They have more flexibility to restrict expression and in many cases commit far more flagrant censorship. At Harvard University, campus administrators have pressured students to sign an oath committing them to act with “inclusiveness” and “kindness.” At Vanderbilt University, administrators forced religious student groups to abide by a policy that allows students who do not share their beliefs to become leaders of those groups.

Students at universities nationwide agree to conduct codes that forbid all kinds of deceptively innocuous ideals. Encouraging inclusiveness and kindness is a good thing, but there’s a reason we don’t have laws on such trivialities. Conduct codes rife with buzzwords or vagueness grant administrators exorbitant power to infringe upon free speech.

Public universities across America are violating students’ right to free speech, but all too often, the discourse on free speech is reduced to debates over constitutionality. I’m not writing here to make legal arguments. We forget that freedom of expression alone, regardless of legal consideration, is a value we cherish.

Our universities should be beacons of free, uninhibited thought. The state of student conduct codes is on a slippery slope. If universities have the power to ban expression merely because it’s distasteful, they also have the power to silence voices for far more egregious reasons.