Speech that is merely “mean” will no longer be banned by one northwestern university following intense media scrutiny earlier this month.
At the beginning of December, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) highlighted the University of Montana Western’s (UMW) absurd speech code policy, which banned “mean, nasty or vindictive” speech. As I wrote at the time:
Of course, this raises the obvious question of who gets to decide what speech is considered “mean, nasty, or vindictive.” If I were to take a guess, based on how speech and other matters are disciplined at other universities, I’d have to say the person who decides is the person most offended, rather than a reasonable person.
Intent, in these situations, is never important to colleges and universities. One student may say something to another without any ill intent, yet the second student may take it the wrong way and consider it “mean” or “nasty.” The second student is wrong, but that doesn’t matter, all that matters is their feelings.
The original placement of the “Civility Standards” gave the impression that students could be punished — including expulsion — for saying something another student deemed “mean.” The original wording included a ban on “mean, nasty, or vindictive” speech in “spoken or printed or emailed words, facial expressions, or gestures.” That’s right, a student could be expelled for giving another student a “mean” look.
After several other media outlets joined FIRE and The Daily Wire in calling out UMW’s speech code, the university removed the language from its “Statement of Responsibility,” a spokesman for FIRE informed me on December 14.
The school now argues that the language was never intended as policy.
“The ‘statement of responsibility’ to which FIRE has called attention was never intended to be a code or policy and has never been used to discipline anyone. Upon receiving FIRE's letter, Chancellor Weatherby called together a group of staff who were here in 2013, when this was drafted,” UMW spokesman Matt Raffety told Campus Reform. “It was meant to promote good citizenship, but it was clearly placed incorrectly. It looks like policy. It is NOT policy. We have removed it.”
Laura Beltz, who wrote the article for FIRE, also told Campus Reform that UMW reached out to them after their report and said it removed the language.
“After FIRE designated the University of Montana Western's policy on civility as our Speech Code of the Month for December, the university quickly reached out to inform us that the policy had been rescinded and removed from its website,” Beltz said. “We're pleased to see this positive development, and welcome further collaboration between FIRE and the university on its remaining speech codes.”
Credit where credit is due. UMW recognized the fault in their speech code and rectified the situation, allowing students to breathe a little easier knowing their facial expressions aren’t going to be policed by subjective snowflakes or campus administrators. While this was an extreme case of poor speech-code wording, thousands of other schools enact policies that restrict student speech.