Speech, Protest and the Rules of University Conduct

As issues related to speech on campus are being discussed and debated around the country, I want to (re)share this post from last spring on speech and public debate at Columbia under our Rules of University Conduct. And here is a link to University Life’s fall forum on Free Speech in Our Community. If you’d like to share your ideas on these issues with the University community, please write to us at [email protected].

February 11, 2017

An Early Update from the Rules Administrator about the Rules of University Conduct (March 2016)

Throughout much of last year, the Rules of University Conduct were a hot topic for some, as the University prepared to replace provisions governing campus protests that had been in place for decades.

And this fall, I became the rules administrator in my capacity as executive vice president for University Life. While part of this role involves receiving complaints and deciding whether to resolve potential violations informally or to bring formal charges, another essential part, to me, is educational. So, although the new rules are still in their infancy, I want to share some initial thoughts about them with the University community.

For those who are unfamiliar, check out the illustrated guide to the Rules of University Conduct on the Office of University Life website.

What most impresses me about the rules can be found in the first two pages—the Affirmative Statement. There, in the very first line, we learn that the rules “are intended to ensure that all members of our community may engage in our cherished traditions of free expression and open debate.” For this (and the rest), credit goes to the University Senate, which drafted and passed the rules, and to the University trustees who enacted them.

While some might worry that rules like these intend to stifle protest and debate, the Rules of Conduct actually open with a commitment to the opposite—to foster free inquiry consistent with the mission of universities at large, and our University in particular: to “provide a place for ideas to be tested, for values to be questioned, and for minds to be changed with as few constraints as possible.”

Right away, the rules tell us that they aim to protect the rights of both demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. “As is true of the larger community in which the University sits, the University must protect the rights of all to engage in their callings and express their own views,” the rules’ text says.  

So why, then, would the rules impose any limitations on protests—say, for example, by prohibiting community members from disrupting an event at the University? Is the idea that the rules aim to silence people in the face of speakers with whom they disagree?

To the contrary, as the rules explain: Limited restrictions “are necessary not because they would prevent any opinion from being stated or heard, but, to the contrary, because they protect the rights of free speech, free press, and academic freedom.”

And they go on: “Just as all members of the University community have the right to speak, to study, research, to teach, and to express their own views, so must they allow others in the community to do the same.” Indeed, the rules specify that they value the right to demonstrate and the “right of others to counter-demonstrate.”

If you’re too busy to read the full Affirmative Statement (midterms, perhaps?), I’ll share one paragraph for you that explains why these limited restrictions will not turn on the content of any demonstrator’s speech:

“To be true to these principles, the University cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral, or untrue. Viewpoints will inevitably conflict, and members of the University community will disagree with and may even take offense at both the opinions expressed by others and the manner in which they are expressed. But the role of the University is not to shield individuals from positions that they find unwelcome. Rather, the University is a place for received wisdom and firmly held views to be tested, and tested again, so that members of the University community can listen, challenge each other, and be challenged in return.”

This is the idea, familiar from First Amendment law, of content neutrality, meaning that restrictions can turn on “time, place and manner” but not on the views being expressed.

If someone is charged with violating the rules, the process then heads over to the University Judicial Board, comprised of students, faculty, and administrators, which can hold a hearing to evaluate the charge and, if appropriate, impose sanctions for violations.

As I said at the outset, these rules are in their early days—which means that there is much to be gained by ensuring that everyone understands them fully. It is this learning process that can enable our community to live up to the high standards that the rules themselves set for us all.

Professor Suzanne B. Goldberg is Executive Vice President for University Life. She is also the Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law at Columbia Law School. Read Prof. Goldberg’s previous posts for the Spectator here and other posts here.