Freedom of speech is being threatened at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. A “speech code” has been enforced on campus, prohibiting students from adopting views that contradict the official views of the university administration. The broad code stipulates that student speech should not “provoke, harass, intimidate or harm another.” In Big Brother fashion, it also requires that students think a certain way, requiring their thought to reflect the “attitudes and behaviors” of the university administration. This assault on free speech is rightly being challenged.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) took the case on behalf of two Shippensburg students, Walter Blair and Ellen Wray. A lawsuit, filed in April, charged that the university wanted the students to not dissent from the administration’s views on controversial issues and to “mirror” them on social issues. For example, in an affidavit, Mr. Blair says that the university’s resident director ordered him and other resident advisers to remove “messages or flyers that were hostile to Osama bin Laden and/or supportive of the American military effort in Afghanistan” from students’ doors in the wake of the September 11 attacks. The resident director informed Mr. Blair that such materials “were offensive to other students and violated the [university] Code of Conduct.”
A U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the students and issued a preliminary injunction on Sept. 4, ordering Shippensburg not to enforce the speech code on campus. The court also denied the university’s motion to dismiss the case. U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s order stated that “if we were to deny a preliminary injunction, the First Amendment rights of Shippensburg University’s students would continue to be violated.” It is clear that academic freedom is at stake, as well as freedom of thought. According to Thor L. Halvorssen, CEO of FIRE, the preliminary ruling in the Shippensburg case is “a great victory and a vital step in the struggle against the scandal of unconstitutional campus censorship at public colleges and universities. Shippensburg faces the legal consequences of trampling the Constitution of the United States.”
The school has a few weeks to respond to the court’s decision. We urge Shippensburg to do the right thing: admit defeat and permanently repeal the speech code.