Student rights organization questions Marshall University’s student codes for violations



Published: Friday, January 21, 2011

Updated: Friday, January 21, 2011

A student rights organization says Marshall's speech codes limit First Amendment freedoms.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, FIRE, announced Marshall as a speech code violator for the month of January, and it focuses on standard three of Marshall's  code of student rights and responabilities.

"I truly cannot think of another speech code that prohibits such a staggering amount of constitutionally protected speech," wrote Samantha Harris in a story posted to FIRE's website. Harris is the director of speech code research for FIRE.

Harris lists five violations Marshall's code has in conjunction with standard three, and she refers to these policies as covering so much speech that "there is very little speech for which Marshall can't punish."

Harris did not respond to e-mails or phone calls to comment on her article.

"The reason most school speech codes are found unconstitutional is because they are too vague," said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "Courts say students need ‘fair notice' of what is and is not allowed," LoMonte said.

The Marshall speech code violations include racial harassment, embarrassment, obscene conduct or expression and disrespect of persons.

"This article makes me think about our speech code," said Steve Hensley, dean of student affairs. "I admire free speech, but unfortunately, there is a thin line between free speech and harassment," Hensley said.

Hensley gave an example of a past incident where Marshall's speech code worked in favor of a student group.

The Lambda society, an organization that supports the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight communities of Marshall, wrote meeting times and other information with chalk on campus sidewalks.

"Other students on campus altered Lambda's messages and added derogatory and offensive language," Hensley said. "Because of our code, Lambda members were able to take the incident to student judicial affairs rather than getting into conflict with the students."

Hensley said if the students had not altered Lambda's message and had only written the offensive language next to the meeting information, then it would not have been an issue.

"We respect the exchange of information, but when the students interfered with Lambda's right to free speech by altering their message, then it was a problem," Hensley said.

Chief of staff Matt Turner said on behalf of President Stephen Kopp's office that the code is not in place to restrict free speech.

"It is for the welfare of students," Turner said. "It gives students grounds for bringing up issues in front of a student board."

Turner said FIRE's article is not rushing the administration to make a change right away.

"It gives us pause to see if it is something we need to look at in the future," Turner said.

The Student Conduct and Welfare Committee will meet at 9 a.m. Monday at the memorial student center in room 2E10, and Marshall's speech code is on the agenda.

Kelley Bugler can be contacted at



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