Monday, October 29, 2007

Comments on William & Mary's Speech Code

From Eugene Volokh.
On reflection, I think I should have faulted William & Mary more for what sounds like an unconstitutional speech code (quite independently of whether it is to be enforced using confidential complaints). ...

Thus, for instance, condemning a particular student's or professor's religious or political views in any way that is "hostile" — even if it isn't threatening or "fighting words" — would seemingly be punishable, if it's "aimed at" or "directed at" the person. This might be limited to statements said to a particular person; but it might also be read as covering statements said to the public at large in a newspaper or a Web post about a particular person (depending on how "directed at" and "aimed at" is read). The Statement of Rights and Responsibilities seems considerably more speech-protective, and the "Bias Reporting" page restricts its statement about unprotected speech to speech that violates the Statement of Rights and Responsibilities. But the Statement is not crystal clear about what is protected, and the "Bias Reporting" page may be seen as an elaboration on the Statement that makes certain speech punishable.

So William & Mary should, I think, be faulted for seemingly instituting a speech code that potentially forbids a wide range of protected and important speech — or, at best, leaving students unclear about what speech is allowed. I continue to think that the William & Mary initiative's solicitation of confidential complaints is sound, and I'll try to elaborate a little more on this shortly; investigating properly punishable conduct (such as physical attacks, vandalism, and threats) often requires considering confidential complaints. But constitutionally protected speech ought not be punished whether based on confidential complaints or otherwise.
The irony of the William & Mary speech code is just rich. If one visits Williamsburg, VA and the old colonial section, you will see dozens of William & Mary students running down the main street toward the Old Statehouse, the birth place of many of the ideas and ideals behind the founding of our nation.

No comments: