Obama Administration Orders Colleges to Implement Unconstitutional Speech Codes
Religion & Liberty Online

Obama Administration Orders Colleges to Implement Unconstitutional Speech Codes

CensorUNot content to trample only the religious freedom side of the First Amendment, the federal government has decided to ignore the free speech side too.

As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reports, the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education have joined together to mandate that virtually every college and university in the United States establish unconstitutional speech codes that violate the First Amendment and decades of legal precedent.

In a letter sent yesterday to the University of Montana that explicitly states that it is intended as “a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country,” the Departments of Justice and Education have mandated a breathtakingly broad definition of sexual harassment that makes virtually every student in the United States a harasser while ignoring the First Amendment. The mandate applies to every college receiving federal funding—virtually every American institution of higher education nationwide, public or private.

The letter states that “sexual harassment should be more broadly defined as ‘any unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature'” including “verbal conduct” (that is, speech). It then explicitly states that allegedly harassing expression need not even be offensive to an “objectively reasonable person of the same gender in the same situation”—if the listener takes offense to sexually related speech for any reason, no matter how irrationally or unreasonably, the speaker may be punished.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA School of Law, says that this is telling universities to institute speech codes:

And not just any old speech codes: Under these speech codes, universities would be required to prohibit students from, for instance,

1. saying “unwelcome” “sexual or dirty jokes”
2. spreading “unwelcome” “sexual rumors” (without any limitation to false rumors”
3. engaging in “unwelcome” “circulating or showing e-mails of Web sites of a sexual nature”
4. engaging in “unwelcome” “display or distribution of sexually explicit drawings, pictures or written materials”
5. making “unwelcome” sexual invitations.

This is not limited to material that a reasonable person would find offensive. Nor is limited to material that, put together, creates a “hostile, abusive, or offensive educational environment.” (I think even speech codes that would have these requirements are unconstitutional, but the speech codes that the government is urging would in any event not have these requirements.) Every instance of such material of a “sexual nature,” under the government’s approach, would be “sexual harassment” and would need to be banned.

For the past few decades, campus speech codes have been used not to protect students but to force them to conform to politically correct standards. This latest move by the Obama administration will not only make the situation worse but will make it impossible to determine what sorts of speech can and cannot be said on campus.

As Greg Lukianoff, president of FIRE say, “The federal government has put colleges and universities in an impossible position with this mandate. With this unwise and unconstitutional decision, the DOJ and DOE have doomed American campuses to years of confusion and expensive lawsuits, while students’ fundamental rights twist in the wind.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).