In November, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) went after Southwest Minnesota State University for listing a rule on its website that forbade demeaning jokes and slurs about anyone’s culture.
Racial jokes, while unsavory or frankly unfunny — depending on who you ask — aren’t the same thing as hate speech or harassment, FIRE argued. Rather, the university’s over-broad speech code had the ability to punish students and faculty based on subjective offensiveness, says spokeswoman Samantha Harris.
“The expression of an opinion that may seem reasonable to one person may be offensive to another person,” Harris says. “When you have policies like this that ban broad categories of speech, when we see it used, we see students and faculty members being punished for engaging in political speech or expressions of opinion that simply don’t rise to the level of unprotected speech.”
FIRE didn’t receive any complaints from students at SMSU about the policy. It's likely the rule wasn’t much enforced. But elsewhere in Minnesota, controversy rages in schools that have similar restrictions on speech.
Notably, a professor at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota was recently fired for penning an offensively accurate translation of the ancient Greek play Medea, which is about a woman who murders her kids to get back at her husband. True to the original production, the chorus points giant wooden penises at the audience (some sort of religious rite). The Catholic university would have none of it.
After FIRE targeted SMSU in its Speech Code of the Month column, the university scrubbed the “cultural intolerance” policy language from its code of conduct and replaced it with the more realistic “discriminatory harassment” ban, which targets verbal or physical abuse with the intent to intimidate.
According to SMSU Dean Scott Crowell, the revision was long overdue because SMSU hasn’t actually used the “cultural intolerance” rule for years. SMSU never got around to updating everything on its site.
“Once they told us they had found this, we went out, found it, and had IT scrub it,” Crowell says. “We didn’t change it because of what FIRE did.”
Whatever the case might be, the point is that “cultural intolerance” must be tolerated at SMSU, as long as it doesn’t move to harassment.
“Harassment is not protected speech and it’s something schools can and should prohibit,” Harris says. “We’ve seen a slight uptick in harassment prohibition policies over the years, and restrictive speech codes decline over the years, which is a very good thing.”