Love It or Leave It: Does ISU’s Code of Student Conduct Violate the First Amendment?

Illinois State University (ISU) has received an undesirable designation: it has been named “Speech Code of the Month” for September by the Foundation for Individual Rights (FIRE), a libertarian organization that criticizes restrictions on student free speech.
At the heart of FIRE’s criticism is ISU’s Code of Student Conduct (pdf), which contains the provision “To Be an Illinois State University Student,” which declares that the following are “non-negotiable values”: character, conscience, civility, citizenship, “an appreciation of diversity,” and “individual and social responsibility.” Then the Code of Student Conduct declares, “When individual behavior conflicts with the values of the University, the individual must choose whether to adapt his or her behavior to meet the needs of the community or to leave the University.”

Samantha Harris, the Director of Speech Code Research for FIRE, wrote: “So by the plain language of this policy, if a student’s expression or behavior deviates from the university’s definition of what it means to appreciate diversity or be socially responsible, that student may be asked to leave the university.”

ISU spokesperson Jay Groves responded to Harris’ claims by noting, “No, although after reading it myself, it could have been more clearly written.  While certainly the University has values, and hopes the students would share those values, the only enforceable components are based on laws/policies found in Section V.” Groves also declared that no student has been subjected to discipline because of this values section in the Student Code.

However, the Student Code is more than just symbolic; many students assume that they can be punished for violating any part of it. Certainly, having this statement in the Code of Student Conduct gives the impression that it is required. ISU’s Psychology Department informs students that “all students in Psychology classes are expected to abide by the ISU Code of Student Conduct” and then it quotes the section about “non-negotiable values.”

While ISU may not deserve to be named “Speech Code of the Month” when no students have been wrongly punished, the policy certainly needs to be clarified. A vague statement of values has no business appearing in a code that regulates student conduct, and if it is there the university must make it absolutely clear that these values cannot be imposed by disciplinary regulations. Perhaps it’s noteworthy that “freedom” is not listed as one of these “non-negotiable” values that the university says it believes in “strongly.”

But more importantly, this list is a terrible statement of the values of any university. These values mostly amount to nonsense. Exactly what is “character”? What does “conscience” mean at a university that claims everyone must agree with its values? What does “civility” entail? As for diversity, you don’t actually need to achieve it, you just need “appreciation” of it, whatever that means. And “responsibility” is perhaps the broadest of these meaningless values.

The true values of a university are truth, debate, diversity, and, most of all, freedom. But ISU doesn’t need more lists of values that it pretends to believe in. If ISU as an institution truly believes in these values, then it needs to analyze and debate these values in an atmosphere of liberty. It needs to have public arguments about what “conscience” is, not proclamations that everyone must believe in it when no one has even bothered to explain the meaning of the term.

Anyone who think that students must agree with the “values” of a public university or leave it doesn’t truly understand the meaning of character, conscience, civility, diversity, or responsibility. Character at a great university means respecting students to do what is right without compulsion. Conscience means allowing individuals to dissent. Civility means creating an atmosphere that respects everyone’s ideas. Citizenship means protecting the fundamental rights of all people in America, including free speech. Diversity includes the diversity of ideas that different people have. And social responsibility means that the university has an obligation not to impose its values on individuals.

For many years, a certain anti-intellectual, pseudo-patriotic group of know-nothings lived by a philosophy called “love it or leave it.” Whenever anyone dared to criticize the American government, these ignoramuses would proclaim that you can either love America or leave it. It’s sad to imagine that anyone at ISU could embrace a similar dogma about this university’s supposed values and demand that students “leave” the university if they don’t like this list of values. We should never impose conformity as the price for living in America or attending one of its universities. You only truly love a country, or embrace a university’s values, when you are willing to dissent and to allow others to speak their minds.

This is not the first time that ISU’s speech regulations have caused controversy. In 2002, administrators led an effort to revise ISU’s speech code to ban amplification on campus, and limit protests and distribution of literature to four small zones. This move came after an ISU student was arrested protesting a Disney College Program event due to Disney’s use of sweatshop labor for its products, and anti-abortion protestors on campus displayed offensive photographs. These “speech zone” rules were so controversial that thousands of ISU students signed a petition opposing the speech zones. ISU’s Academic Senate voted 47-1 to reject the proposed policy.

Ten years later, ISU’s Code of Student Conduct should spark similar outrage from students and faculty who believe that the university’s values don’t include telling students to leave if they disagree with the administration’s interpretation of its values.

Groves indicated that ISU’s Code of Student Conduct may soon be revised. That’s absolutely necessary.  Instead of a vague statement of “values” wrongly imposed on students, the Code of Student Conduct needs a clear-cut statement of student rights that enforce the highest value of a university: the freedom to speak and debate ideas.

This essay by John K. Wilson is reprinted from the Indy, a student newspaper at ISU.

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