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Santa Clara University says students have free speech but can’t use “degrading” language

Fake free speech.
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Santa Clara University has come up with a new speech code that is raising a few eyebrows for being poorly-defined and contradictory.

The goal of the new rules, gathered in 109 pages, is to at once ban “degrading language” without defining what it means, and at the same time pledge to allow students “greatest possible” level of freedom of expression and individual choice.

This handbook has been picked as the Speech Code of the Month by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), who suggested in an report penned by the senior program officer for policy reform, Laura Beltz, that enforcing a rule like a ban on degrading language will be mission impossible.

The problem is in the lack of a true definition of what degrading is, thus leaving the door open for subjective decisions to be made by administrators, or falling under the influence of what she refers to as “online mobs.”

The right way to go about producing a code that concerns free speech, according to Beltz, would be to make it clear and properly defined. Consistent at least in its inconsistency, the handbook volunteers to provide high standards of free speech protection guaranteed by the First Amendment – even though the school is under no obligation to do that.

Beltz mentions previous instances that showed how difficult it would be to define and ban what’s considered degrading or disparaging. A safety officer at the university’s campus recently displayed a Blue Lives Matter emblem, leading to calls for his firing. But, depending on their point of view, a Black Lives Matter hashtag might also be seen as unacceptable to others. The new rules would not apply to the officer since he is not a student, but the case is emblematic (no pun intended) of the difficulties with this sort of speech regulation.

In her report, Beltz also mentions that the US Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled against limiting speech just because it is considered subjectively offensive. Yet that is precisely what Santa Clara University appears to want to do, because the decision on what speech is degrading and punishable will be left to administrators.

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