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In free speech victory, university removes ban on demeaning jokes


A code of conduct at Southwest Minnesota State University that banned “cultural intolerance” and demeaning jokes was revised after the rules were accused of hindering students’ free speech rights.

In November, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education criticized Southwest Minnesota State University’s regulations, which prohibited “cultural intolerance” and added “any verbal or physical contact directed at an individual or group such as racial slurs, jokes, or other behaviors that demean or belittle a person’s race, color, gender preference, national origin, culture, history or disability, is prohibited.”

“SMSU is a public university, which means it cannot lawfully maintain policies—such as this one—that violate students’ First Amendment right to free speech,” FIRE pointed out.

“Under SMSU’s policy, any speech or expression that another student subjectively finds ‘demeaning’ or ‘belittling’ is subject to punishment. And on today’s college campus, where students increasingly demand the right to emotional comfort, that often includes a tremendous amount of speech, including the expression of unpopular views on political and social issues,” FIRE added.

University officials took a closer look at the policy and subsequently revised it.

The term “cultural intolerance” is no longer found in its current Prohibited Code of Conduct, and “discriminatory harassment” is now defined as “verbal or physical conduct that is directed at an individual because of his or her protected class, and that is sufficiently severe, pervasive, or persistent so as to have the purpose or effect of creating a hostile work or educational environment.”

Samantha Harris, a spokeswoman for FIRE, told The College Fix via email that the foundation is pleased Southwest Minnesota State revised its speech restrictions.

Harris noted the public university “still has some policies that limit students’ expressive rights (such as a policy requiring advanced reservation for ‘expressive activities’ sponsored by student organizations), [but] the cultural intolerance policy was the most restrictive policy on the books.”

“As a result of the revision, therefore, SMSU no longer earns FIRE’s worst ‘red light’ rating for free speech — instead the university received an improved (but still undesirable) yellow light rating,” Harris said.

Southwest Minnesota State’s campus spokesperson did not respond to The College Fix’s requests for comment about either the old or revised code of conduct.

SMSU Dean Scott Crowell later told City Pages that the policy identified by FIRE was out of date and simply hadn’t been removed from its website: “We didn’t change it because of what FIRE did.”

When FIRE notified the school, “we went out, found it, and had IT scrub it,” Crowell said.

Since FIRE began the “Speech Code of the Month” feature in 2005, more than half the schools criticized therein have revised their policies, according to Harris.

UPDATE: SMSU told a local newspaper that the policy identified by FIRE was out of date and mistakenly left on its website. The article has been amended accordingly.

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Kate Hardiman -- University of Notre Dame

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