A Montana university has a policy that could land students in hot water over facial expressions the school deems “nasty or vindictive.”
This includes refraining from being “mean or nasty” during debates — and even from using “nasty” facial expressions.
The Civility Standards say, “While discussions may become heated and passionate, they should never become mean, nasty or vindictive in spoken or printed or emailed words, facial expressions, or gestures.”
The Code of Conduct also tells students that “if someone is doing something you find offensive, disruptive, frustrating, or wrong, tell them clearly, calmly, and politely.”
Breaking any of the rules found in the Code of Conduct could lead to the student being thrown out of school.
The Code of Conduct says that “committing any act prohibited by this Code of Conduct may result in expulsion or suspension from the University unless specific and mitigating factors are present.”
Those “mitigating factors” include “the present attitude and past disciplinary record of the offender, as well as the nature of the offense and the severity of any damage, injury, or harm resulting from it.”
The pro-free-speech group Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has voiced concerns over the policy, saying it could lead to the suppression of speech among students.
The group said it has found “increasing instances of faculty members being investigated or even punished over speech that is deemed to have lacked civility. And even if these civility policies aren’t applied to punish protected speech in practice, they’re still likely to have a chilling effect on speech, as students reading the policy will self-censor and avoid controversial expression rather than taking that risk.”
FIRE noted that speech is protected under the First Amendment even when it is not “civil.”
The free speech organization cited the Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson in which the justices wrote, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
The term “civil” can also be subjective depending on who is hearing the conversation, FIRE said.
“The term is entirely subjective,” the group writes. “And whether elected officials wish to encourage civility or not, speech that is subjectively deemed not civil is typically constitutionally protected, and may not be restricted by the government on that basis.”
Laura Beltz, policy reform program officer for FIRE, told Campus Reform, “The policy says students must promote an atmosphere of civility and that their discussions should never become ‘mean, nasty, or vindictive,’ but those are all entirely subjective terms that could be applied to punish constitutionally protected speech.
“Even if the policy isn’t actually applied that way, students who read the policy and see how vague it is are likely to self-censor instead of taking the risk that something they say will be seen as mean, nasty, vindictive, or not civil.
“This sort of chilling effect on protected speech is unacceptable at a public university like Montana Western.”
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