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College bans ’emotional’ harm, behavior that ‘demeans others’

No intent required to get expelled

Chances are you haven’t heard of Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

It sounded vaguely familiar to me, perhaps because a professor tried to get tenure by going on a hunger strike (tacos proved irresistible). The private school also once assigned freshmen a book arguing that humans are causing a sixth mass extinction.

Here’s something to burn Lafayette into your memory: It punishes students who cause “emotional” or “mental” harm to others. It might even expel them for “any activity that harms or demeans others.”

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education named Lafayette its Speech Code of the Month for its comically broad Student Handbook. Its restrictions on undefined and ambiguous terms directly contradict its promises to students that they enjoy “freedom of speech” and that freedom of expression is “indispensable” to its institutional goals.

FIRE’s Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform, writes that the college’s federal appeals court has already struck down similar language (“emotional distress”) banned by a public university.

The reason? It requires no “intent” on behalf of the person allegedly causing emotional distress. Beltz writes: “Similarly, Lafayette’s ban on emotional harm includes no intent element, and could be applied against anyone for any subjectively harmful or demeaning speech.”

Unless a judge agrees the handbook forms a mutually binding contractual obligation (there’s precedent!) the college might not end up in court trying to defend this policy.

But Beltz says if it wants to live up to its own promises, it has to revise its rules on campus expression to meet First Amendment standards.

It currently receives FIRE’s lowest speech rating, a “red light,” because of the student handbook, harassment policy (“unwelcome” conduct banned), sexual harassment policy (same thing) and bias response team (even permitted behavior may get you hauled into a “conflict resolution process”), among other ambiguous policies.

Wondering how you can avoid running afoul of these policies? Your best bet is to simply not attend Lafayette! Here’s a helpful rhyme: “Lafayette is a lousy bet!”

MORE: Lafayette professor goes hungry for tenure, ends it with tacos

IMAGE: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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