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Freedom of (Civil) Speech

Posted by Rick · April 26th, 2003 · No Comments

An article on CNN today (“College sued over free speech rules“) reports that Shippensburg University has been sued because their speech policy has “a chilling effect on plaintiffs’ rights to freely and openly engage in appropriate discussions” in various areas. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette carries the story in a little more detail.

The First Amendment, part of the original ten amendments collectively known as the Bill of Rights, prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech.” Over the years, this prohibition has been expanded so that it applies to other governmental bodies. And this makes sense. After all, if Congress cannot abridge freedom of speech, but other governmental agencies could, the result is the same: the power of the government can be used to silence people.

As I said, this constitutional restraint on our governmental bodies is a good thing.

But I’m very much against the idea that speech has to be rude, and people or groups who offer guidelines on the proper way to conduct oneself publicly should abstain from doing so, on the grounds that this is the only way to ensure speech is free.

Does Shippensburg University unconstitutionally impinge on freedom of speech? The strongest language I see in this regard is found under the heading “Nondiscriminatory Language” in their undergraduate student manual:

“[T]he American Psychological Association Guidelines for Nondiscriminatory Language are hereby recommended as a model reference for verbal and written language to be used by all employees.”

So I guess the answer to the question will depend upon whether the emphasis is placed on “recommended” or on “to be used by all employees.” In either case, I don’t see anything there that should have a “chilling effect” on free discussion among students.

Somewhere along the way, we seem to have tripped, and fallen down a slippery slope; recommendations for how to behave in a civil manner are sorely needed in our society. Freedom of Speech should not be understood only to mean “freedom to insult, demean, belittle, or shock.” The purpose of freedom of speech is the free exchange of ideas.

What kind of chilling effect does non-civil speech have upon the free flow of ideas and open discussion?

Categories: Freedom of Speech · The Decline of America


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