ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

ACTA is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability at America's colleges and universities.

Speech Codes and Journalistic Ethics

September 13, 2005 by ACTA

Last spring, the University of New Hampshire found itself at the center of a highly publicized controversy when a student journalist repeatedly posted material on his blog that offended and frightened his teachers and fellow students. He wrote about raping women and shooting students; he posted a fantasy about sexually assaulting a vocal and controversial campus feminist--and was fired from the student paper as a consequence; he posted another entry detailing how he would like to shove his his penis through his English teacher's eye socket--and was banned from the class. Gagnon was advised to get psychiatric help, and UNH looked into what kinds of legal recourse it might have against Gagnon. It is not known whether Gagnon was further sanctioned, but what is clear is that UNH is now attempting to prevent similar future scandals by pre-emptively chilling student expression.

The Gagnon scandal was part of a larger campus uproar over a campus magazine's "sex survey." As part of that survey, the same campus feminist Gagnon dreamt of raping was named as the "celebrity" students would "most like to have sex with." The Feminist Action League protested this as "pornographic" and "sexually threatening," and adminstrative action was eventually taken.

Now, UNH is taking a two-pronged approach to preventing similar events in the future:

In May, the UNH Student Senate unanimously passed a resolutions condemning Main Street Magazine for printing Williams' name in an inappropriate context and recommended all student publication adopt the Society of Professional Journalist Code of Ethics in their charters.

Since then university officials have been discussing online journals, or blogs, as they are commonly called, and want students to know what they write can lead to action being taken by the university, Lawing said. This could range from a warning to suspension.

The Student Senate resolution is harmless enough, though it would have been nice if it had acknowledged the importance of a free press. It would also have been nice to see the Senate distance itself from the Feminist Action League's excessive and censorious reaction to the magazine's sex survey. But you can't have everything.

Of greater concern is the UNH administration's interest in monitoring student blogs and websites with intent to punish students for content the administration deems unacceptable. It's not clear whether the university will extend its monitoring to sites maintained by students on non-university servers, nor is it clear that the university appreciates that the First Amendment covers online student expression at public universities. UNH says it will only pursue students whose online writing violates the student code of conduct or threatens some member of the community--but "threat" does not appear to have been defined, and the student code of conduct is, in fact, an illegal speech code.

Does the University of New Hampshire have a problem respecting student expression? Yes.

Last year, UNH made headlines when it evicted dorm resident Timothy Garneau for posting a flyer recommending that women students avoid gaining the "freshman fifteen" by taking the stairs rather than the elevators. Garneau was charged with violating affirmative action policies, harassment, and lewd and disorderly conduct, was placed on disciplinary probation, was sentenced to counseling, was required to write a 3000-word essay reflecting on his therapy session, and was also required to publish a public apology in the dormitory's house newspaper. Garneau appealed to no avail. The university only dropped the charges and moved him back into the dorms after FIRE went public with the manner in which UNH had utterly disrespected Garneau's rights.

From the looks of things now, UNH still hasn't grasped its obligations to the Bill of Rights.

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