PRESS RELEASE: Student Press Law Center Urges Caution in N.J. Campus Speech Regulation

Contact: Frank D. LoMonte Executive Director(703)

The Student Press Law Center today joined other free-speech groups inurging New Jersey’s Attorney General to clarify her directive to NewJersey colleges and universities to enact rules punishing”cyber-harassment” and “bullying,” cautioning that anyrestriction on campus speech must be narrowly drawn to avoid criminalizinglegitimate editorial commentary.

“No matter how well-intentioned, history shows that any code ofconduct giving government officials open-ended discretion to punish speechinvariably leads to censorship of lawful speech that is merely provocative orunpopular,” SPLC Executive Director Frank D. LoMonte said. “Whilestalking or threats of violence are properly unlawful under existing law, acampus speech code that purports to penalize the undefined offense of’bullying’ does not give students — or New Jersey’scollege officials — fair and reasonable notice of what conduct isprohibited, and opens the door to selective and abusiveenforcement.”

SPLC sent a letter today to Attorney General Anne Milgram offering to workcooperatively in formulating a clearly and narrowly defined policydifferentiating unlawful threatening and harassing conduct from editorialcommentary that is merely upsetting or unwelcome to some audiences. SPLC wasjoined in the letter by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, anational campus free-speech advocacy group, and the New Jersey Society ofProfessional Journalists.

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is a Washington, D.C.-area nonprofitwhose mission is to advocate for free-press rights for high school and collegejournalists nationwide. The Center provides legal information and referralassistance at no charge to students and the educators who work with them.

The organizations’ letter is a response to Attorney GeneralMilgram’s August 26 letter to all colleges and universities — publicand private — in New Jersey, in which the Attorney General urged collegeadministrators to: “[i]ncorporate the topic of cyber-harassment, whichincludes stalking, bullying, and/or sexual exploitation, into yourschool’s code of conduct, with consequences for those who engage in theseactivities.” The directive was an outgrowth of the AttorneyGeneral’s investigation into postings on the gossip Website, which targets college audiences.

In the letter, SPLC, FIRE and SPJ point out that the U.S. Supreme Courtjust last year in the case of Morse v. Frederick reemphasized that– even at an officially sanctioned high school event — governmentofficials may not ban or penalize speech merely because they deem it”offensive.” As Chief Justice John Roberts stated in refusing torule that “offensive” speech is unprotected by the First Amendment:”After all, much political and religious speech might be perceived asoffensive to some.” Any code purporting to allow public college oruniversity officials to discipline college students for “offensive”online speech would undoubtedly be struck down as unconstitutional, LoMontesaid.

The groups’ letter further pointed out that the Third Circuit U.S.Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over New Jersey, just ruled in August2008 that a (since-repealed) speech code at Temple University violated the FirstAmendment rights of students because it was not narrowly drawn to encompass onlyspeech actually causing disruption. In DeJohn v. Temple University, theThird Circuit struck down as vague and overbroad a campus speech code thatallowed administrators to punish “hostile” or”offensive” speech. Temple’s speech code fell short ofconstitutional standards because it penalized speech based on a mere intent toharass or to disrupt the work of others, even if there was no evidence that thespeech had any disruptive effect, the Third Circuit decided.

“We are all disturbed by extreme instances in which young people havesuffered unlawful harassment over the Internet, but the remedy is not to enactbroad-brush speech codes that will encourage — or even require –college administrators to punish speech that is merely harsh orcontroversial,” LoMonte said. “Good journalism is at timesprovocative and at times causes audiences discomfort. Any effort to outlaw’bullying’ on campus must make crystal clear that tough, aggressiveeditorial commentary is not ‘bullying.’ Otherwise, journalists willoperate in a climate of fear and uncertainty, and will self-censor lawful speechunnecessarily.”For more information on the SPLC, go to