How can universities distinguish between free speech and bullying?
Censorship—the word itself carries a negative connotation to most people, who associate it with outlandish speech codes, banned materials, and, perhaps most importantly, banned ideas. Campus censorship in particular remains a hot-button topic for colleges and universities—especially as they struggle to define where free speech ends and bullying begins.
The University of Delaware experienced this issue first-hand earlier this year when campus officials addressed bullying in the university’s student code of conduct.
The newly-added anti-bullying prohibitions in the University of Delaware’s student code of conduct were first exposed in June by Samantha Harris, director of speech code research at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Delaware’s new guidelines define bullying as “any deliberately hurtful behavior, usually repeated over time, with the desired outcome of frightening, intimidating, excluding or degrading a person.” Teasing, spreading rumors or private information, physical and verbal assaults are some of the specific behaviors which define bullying under the policy.
“No one likes bullying, but most conduct that could be called bullying on the college level is already illegal,” Harris said. “This policy goes much too far by prohibiting constitutionally protected speech.”
In a letter to University of Delaware President Patrick Harker, Harris asked that the policy be purged from the student code of conduct. The code already categorizes bullying behaviors such as stalking, harassment, and intimidation as punishable offenses. Such activities are additionally indictable under state and federal laws.
Harris and FIRE representatives concur that the policy’s broad language is detrimental to students and obstructs their First Amendment right to free speech. For instance: under the new policy, is ridiculing a political candidate considered bullying? Are parody and satire to be limited or expunged from course curriculum?
Harris did not receive a direct response from President Harker, though the policy has since been removed from the code of conduct and is currently pending review in the Office of Student Life.