FIRE Spotlights Illinois State’s Speech and Conduct Policy

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is using this month’s edition of Speech Code of the Month to examine the policies dealing with free expression at the Illinois State University. The university’s Code of Student Conduct contains a clause that outlines what the school calls its “non-negotiable values.” It goes on to state that if the student’s behavior conflicts with any of the values outlined in the section, they must either alter their behavior or leave the school.

According to FIRE’s Samantha Harris, this particular clause could be interpreted as saying that if the student’s particular mode of expression interferes with what the school considers appropriate, it’s possible that this would be sufficient for the student to be asked to leave. In light of the fact that Illinois State is a public institution, is it even permitted to discriminate against modes on expression in this way? Not according to Harris:

As a public university, Illinois State has no right to require its students to adhere to certain values as a condition of membership in the university community. If this is not immediately clear to you, just try substituting the word “patriotism” for any of the values on that list and imagine the university enforcing the policy.

The fact that a state entity cannot force its own values onto others was something that was decided by a Supreme Court case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the court held that compelling a student of a public school to recite the pledge of allegiance violated their constitutional rights.

Although nothing about the values outlined in the Code of Conduct seems threatening, appropriate steps taken to ensure that goals like “diversity” and “social responsibility” are met are a matter of opinion, not objective fact.

One can imagine, for example, a great deal of political speech (on issues such as immigration, affirmative action, and so forth) that might not be viewed as “appreciative of diversity,” but a public university like Illinois State cannot force students expressing such opinions to leave the university because they conflict with the university’s “non-negotiable values.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with having institutional values, and even encouraging students to adhere to those values, says Harris. But to force students under the penalty of expulsion to hold to those values when their actions don’t violate any other laws is a severe attack on their civil rights. According to Harris, leaving the policy as-is or attempting to enforce it could be put the school in a collision course with a lawsuit.