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University bans ‘degrading language’ while promising ‘greatest possible degree’ of free speech

Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter can cause the same offense

Which is it going to be, Santa Clara University? Arbitrary and capricious regulation of what students can say, or open-ended encouragement to express themselves?

The Catholic school shows its double-mindedness in its 109-page student handbook, which bans “degrading language” (never defined) while promising the “greatest possible degree of freedom for individual choice and expression” – two pages apart.

It’s the Speech Code of the Month for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which says SCU has only itself to blame: It’s not bound by the First Amendment, yet its voluntary promises to students are a tacit endorsement of First Amendment standards.

Laura Beltz, senior program officer for policy reform, notes the “degrading” standard is “just plain impossible to enforce” because it could apply to anything: “Well-defined policies give a university a useful and clear guide when a free speech controversy hits, rather than leaving administrators to apply their own subjective standards or listen to the online mob.”

MORE: Florida State dumps ban on ‘offensive’ language, ‘demeaning’ behavior

While it’s not governed by the student handbook, a recent controversy involving a campus safety officer’s display of a Blue Lives Matter emblem shows “the basic problem with attempts at evaluating degrading content,” Beltz says: “While some may find a Blue Lives Matter emblem offensive, others may feel the same way about a Black Lives Matter emblem.”

If it wants to keep implying that it observes First Amendment standards, Beltz says, the university needs to look at the Supreme Court’s rejection of a law banning trademark registration for terms that “disparage” … well, anything, even an Asian-American rock band’s self-deprecating name (“The Slants”).

There’s nothing with the university truly encouraging students “to strive for a particular set of values,” but SCU must present them as “aspirational guidelines” instead of a speech code under which students can be disciplined.

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MORE: Georgetown libraries remove dozens of novels that offend some students

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.