Student Media and Campus Speech Codes

On whatever occasion the phrase “speech code” is uttered, one may imagine themselves being critiqued for something said foolishly or incorrectly. Punishment for speaking offensively, aggressively, or even illegally ranges in severity and legitimacy and the scope of enforceability relies almost solely upon the sphere in which the speech takes place. Public or private, the implications of particularized unprotected speech present a unique platform for dialogue. Depending upon the campus climate, political and national norms and acceptance of negative student opinion, the interpretation of a college’s speech code can vary drastically.

Information regarding LC’s speech code can be found on the school’s website within its Institutional Policies webpage. All information quoted or referenced within this article is extracted directly from the college’s Freedom of Expression & Academic Inquiry Policy, also accessible to all persons through the college’s official website. All quotes taken directly from the online text are printed in italics, except for the titles of individual policy sections, which are printed between quotations. The term “speech code” is used merely as a shortened and intentionally synonymous phrase for the much longer titled policy.

The first section of the school’s speech code is titled, “Expression of Individuals and Student Organizations.” It summarizes the college’s commitment to its students in supporting the uninhibited examination and discussion of, “…all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately.” However, the policy reminds the reader that individual and student group conduct on campus must clearly state that it is not associated with the conduct of the college itself. The document mentions the clear separation of student activity and college-sponsored activity repeatedly.

Additionally, the policy exclaims, “Members of the College community should recognize that there is a critical distinction between freedom of expression and freedom from responsibility.” This statement nonchalantly reiterates that speech is indeed patrolled on campus, and that one shouldn’t believe in the nearly autonomous freedom of speech they theoretically afford in public arenas. Furthermore, “The College is committed to maintaining an environment where intellectual exploration, critical thinking, freedom of inquiry, and creative expression are valued; the College is also committed to the maintenance of an environment in which civility, mutual respect, effective communication, and accountability are integral.” The college attempts to balance the patrolling of speech on campus with the intended preservation of “civility” and “respect,” and while the exact mechanisms of said patrolling are not explicitly mentioned, the maintenance of safety on campus is nonetheless placed atop a pillar of grave importance. This is a success of the policy. The mentioning of accountability furthermore reiterates the pursuance of those violating the speech code, and when the idea of accountability can be so heartily misconstrued in other realms of college life, it may not be misinterpreted within the policy. This direct vocabulary represents another strength of the policy.

Skimming through the section titled, “Public Postings,” which mandates what can be posted publicly on campus, who controls the location and duration of publication, and the guidelines for common area postings, one finds themselves at the section entitled, “Issues of Anonymous Expression.”

Anonymous expression is a concept particularly relevant to Lewis & Clark, especially after the racist Yik Yak postings and racially-motivated assault that occurred last Spring. “Choosing to speak anonymously does not absolve one of responsibility for the content of that speech: anonymous postings, and the people responsible for them, are still obligated to adhere to existing College policies and posting procedures.” The college directly alludes to what the monitors of Yik Yak would not: anonymity does not remove one’s responsibility to speak without hate. The policy takes an active stance in seeking out and removing harmful anonymous expression, something that promotes a valid option for the policing of hateful speech, but one that also carries the unfortunate burden of subjectivity. By the ability of anonymous expression to “…be removed at any time by any person…”, the policy unfortunately allows the self-policing of others’ expression, which has the potentiality to result in the negative censoring of unpopular opinion on campus. The policy exhibits partial success within this section, but the ambiguity regarding the removal of anonymous expression is troublesome.

Another pertinent section of the policy is titled “Student Demonstrations.” After last year’s sit-ins inside Manor House and demonstrations throughout campus, the idea of student dissent became increasingly significant. “Individual expression must always take place in an orderly fashion, without force or the threat of force, and in a manner that does not deliberately obstruct the orderly processes of the College. Freedom to dissent is exercised in the context of the law and of responsibility for our actions.” The policy seems to encourage lawful student dissent when deemed necessary, and makes no mention of control outside of the rules of common law and order. Another success of the policy is the straightforward mentioning of the necessity for peaceful protest, something often overlooked throughout our nation presently.

The last section of the college’s speech code policy details the presence of “Student Media” on campus. Student media ranges from the Pioneer Log to the literary review, and encompasses essentially any publication circulated by a recognized group on campus. “Student communications media shall be free of censorship and advance approval of copy. They shall have sufficient editorial freedom and financial autonomy to maintain their integrity of purpose as vehicles for free inquiry and expression.” The repeated referencing of freedom of press and the further support through assured financial resources is incredibly important for the student body to understand. The college as a ruling body has removed itself from the censoring of all student media, and — with exception to the adherence of the Canons of Responsible Journalism — assures full responsibility and freedom be left to the student body itself. This is a policy not commonly seen throughout college campuses, and is the single greatest achievement of LC’s speech code. I was personally and delightfully shocked to read of how supportive the college was towards its students freedom of press.

Comprehensively and theoretically, LC’s speech code is authored exceptionally. It balances artfully the necessity for safety on campus with the grave importance of free speech and academic exploration. I encourage every student to read the college’s speech code in its entirety in order to understand the implications and important information throughout.

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