If a student tells a joke at Clemson University, he or she could be expelled. That is because Clemson maintains an anti-harassment policy that prohibits jokes that “interfere” with another student’s education. Clemson encourages students to report each other if they feel offended by a joke. If campus administrators determine that the joke is offensive, they can punish the speaker, up to and including expulsion. This is unconstitutional, so Southeastern Legal Foundation (SLF) sent a letter to Clemson challenging its anti-harassment policy and reporting system.
These days, even the most harmless joke can be labeled harassment by an offended student. It is important for universities to maintain clear and narrow anti-harassment policies so that constitutionally protected speech is not targeted. But at Clemson, students risk punishment any time they tell a joke. Worse, the University tells students not to push back when they are accused of harassment. Instead, it warns students to “take responsibility for [their] actions.” It tells students that so long as they have “learned something” from being reported and investigated, it “will make the whole process easier” for them.
As SLF advised in its letter, administrators cannot intimidate students into silence. They also cannot force students to backtrack or apologize for their statements, no matter how offensive they are. The First Amendment protects even the most offensive ideas. And as a public university, Clemson is bound by the Constitution.