Playing With Fire

As we continue to hear talk about more civility in our public discourse, an organization called FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) has prepared a form letter addressed to the presidents of state universities warning them that the university and individual officials could be liable for enacting and enforcing speech and/or civility codes. The goal of the codes is not the problem; the trouble is when a government entity prohibits speech based on its content. That’s a First Amendment issue, and a public university is a “state actor” that’s subject to the First Amendment. And while individuals are frequently immune from liability for civil rights violations, that immunity dissolves when the conduct violates “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Private institutions are not necessarily subject to the same rules. So, apparently, while an XU student could be disciplined for saying “UC s#!@s” a UC student could probably get away with expressing a similar sentiment concerning the Muskies.