I could easily have chosen nearly any university in the country as the example for this post, but I will choose my alma mater Princeton.
Like many universities, Princeton has a speech code. Like many universities, Princeton's speech code is an affront to the First Amendment and an open license to selectively apply administrative punishments based on political beliefs.
The Princeton speech code says, in part:
Abusive or harassing behavior, verbal or physical, which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures another because of his or her personal characteristics or beliefs, is subject to University disciplinary sanctions...
And further defines sexual harassment as:
verbal or physical conduct [that] has the effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual's work, academic performance, or living conditions by creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive environment.
This is the worst kind of arbitrary legislation. In no part of the guidelines are any of these terms defined. In fact, both as written and as practiced, the definition of these terms is left entirely up to the victim, with outrageous consequences. Basically we have gotten to the point where hurting someones feelings, or even disagreeing with them, is a crime.
This would be bad enough if enforced even-handedly, but in practice, speech codes become a tool of the University faculty and administration to squelch speech they don't agree with. One of my pet peeves is the term "hate speech", which is used frequently in political diatribes by both the left and the right. While this term may have at one point had some utility in narrowly describing the most extreme racism, today in its common usage it has come to mean "speech I don't agree with". In a similar manner, campus speech codes are effectively enforced as banning speech that the ruling orthodoxy of the university does not agree with. If a gay rights activist and a conservative Christian get into an
argument on campus and use similar invective against each other, you
can bet only one is probably going to get sanctioned. And, given the typical politics of universities today, you can guess what speech is protected and what is sanctioned.
Here is my rule of thumb: unless speech meets the (narrow) definition of libel, no legally or
administratively actionable harm can be claimed as a result of it. Or, as we were taught as kids, sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me. In the adult world, this should translate to: Physical assaults are actionable, verbal assaults are not.
The Princeton Tory has a nice article on these policies, as well as the really bad idea to extend this to a "social honor code". And, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) is the leading defender of free speech on campus and has a great web site.
Postscript: Speech limitations are a very slippery slope. So much so that I have never encountered speech or expression by adults aimed at other adults that I would limit. Nazis, communists, birchers, pornographers, racists, revolutionaries, militia, muslims, atheists: Have at it. Even Congressmen. And even this.
Update: One other thought. I have never understood why so many people think that the right approach to people who have stupid, awful ideas is to keep them from being heard. This applies not only to speech codes but the increasingly frequent attempts to ban speakers from campus or, if that is unsuccessful, drown their speech out with chants and interruptions. Why? I have always thought that Sunlight is the Best Disinfectant not just for government proceedings but for bad ideas as well. Let them be heard and ridiculed. After all, Hitler "called his shots" more than a decade before he began his horrible reign. The world would have been better off if he had been listened to carefully in those early years.