TAR HEEL VIEW: ECU’s campus speech codes hamstring students’ growth

Students at East Carolina University are having a rough time transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, with many finding themselves ill-equipped for the rigors of undergrad life.

To address a surge in requests for counseling, ECU is rolling out a program this fall that will teach students about “adulting,” according to The Daily Reflector of Greenville.

Yes, the noun “adult” has become a verb, with popular memes on Facebook lamenting “Please don’t make me adult today,” and “Coffee: Because adulting is hard.” Mary Schulken, ECU’s director of communications, notes that the university is not using that terminology. Multiple media outlets have used “adulting” as an informal description of the initiative.

Specifically, students are struggling with stress, having difficulty coping with failure and are accusing their peers of conduct violations in greater numbers, according to university data showing a 48 percent year-over-year increase in Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities cases from 2013-14 to 2014-15.

In response to these issues, which were presented to the ECU Board of Trustees last month by Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Virginia Hardy, the university has hired two additional counselors, is giving students a self-assessment on resilience and will offer stress management training.

“The report noted ECU is not alone in facing an increasing number of students with low coping skills,” Schulken said in a written statement to The Wilson Times. “Many campuses across the country are learning from each other about how to build students’ resilience and support pathways to success in college.”

While East Carolina should be commended for taking a proactive approach to help equip students for campus life and the real world beyond the college bubble, the phenomenon of young adults’ increasing fragility is one colleges like ECU are complicit in creating.

Many public universities have adopted rules that restrict how students express themselves in a misguided effort to shield classmates from offense. The infantilizing policies nearly always violate the First Amendment, trampling rights guaranteed to all American adults.

ECU has a “red-light” rating for free speech on campus from the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that defends students punished for protected speech in violation of their constitutional rights. FIRE gives colleges a green light when they impose no unlawful policies, a yellow light for vague rules that can be used to suppress speech and a red light for rules that “both clearly and substantially restrict freedom of speech.”

Schulken said the university’s sexual harassment policy listed on FIRE’s website — the reason the group gives for ECU’s red-light rating — is inaccurate. She provided the Times with the correct policy and indicates East Carolina will provide the student-rights group with its current code of conduct. Two other ECU policies on FIRE’s website are outdated or inaccurate, Schulken said.

The difference means ECU could be entitled to a yellow light, but that’s nothing to boast about. FIRE lists several other problematic policies, including a prohibition on distributing literature with “offensive” words, a rule confining assemblies to the university’s “designated public forum” and a requirement that students and employees do not use ECU email in ways that “conflict with appropriate standards of civility and common courtesy.”

Schulken said ECU’s use of facilities and its assemblies and public addresses policies “have been part of an active review by ECU’s university attorney’s office over the summer,” adding that suggested revisions are pending.

FIRE has sued numerous colleges for limiting protests and demonstrations to minuscule “free speech zones,” and in every case, federal judges have struck down the rule or the college has settled with FIRE and voluntarily repealed it.

Public universities are arms of government bound by the Bill of Rights to provide students with the same freedoms they enjoy in society at large — and that includes the right to say things others deem offensive or discourteous.

East Carolina University is not meeting its obligation to its students or the taxpayers of North Carolina in this regard. If students are struggling to adapt to adult life, colleges do them no favors by saddling them with rules that treat these grownups like children.

The Wilson Times

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