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When Students Drop the F-Bomb

May 19, 2010

At Hinds Community College, swearing can get you in trouble. "Public profanity, cursing and vulgarity" are all punishable with a $25 fine for a first offense, and a $50 fine for a second offense. Further, the offense of "flagrant disrespect" (which may be demonstrated by swearing, as became clear Tuesday when a controversy over the code went public) can earn a student demerits that could lead to suspension.

Hinds appears to be relatively rare among public colleges in regulating speech in this way. And the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has taken up the case of a student who faced charges following an incident in which -- after class, but in the presence of an instructor -- he said that a grade he had just received was "going to fuck up my entire G.P.A." The instructor first threatened to place the student in detention and when the student pointed out (correctly) that the college doesn't have detention, the "flagrant disrespect" charges were made.

A spokeswoman for the Mississippi college declined to comment on the case or even to confirm the college's policies as described by FIRE. (The college's student handbook, however, is consistent with FIRE's description of the rules.) Adam Kissel, director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program, issued a statement calling the rules at Hinds unconstitutional. "Hinds Community College simply is not empowered to set itself up as the vulgarity police," he said.

Several experts on student conduct toward faculty members said that they were surprised that a policy like Hinds' existed at any public college or university -- and that they agreed with FIRE's analysis that it violates First Amendment rights. Several, however, said that professors do face real difficulty with profanity and numerous other forms of rudeness from students. And several of these educators said that colleges need to think more about how to promote respectful interactions between students and faculty members -- without becoming the "vulgarity police."

Gary Pavela, director of academic integrity at Syracuse University and author of numerous articles about student conduct, said that profanity outside a classroom would have First Amendment protection at a public college. The key legal ruling, he said, is the U.S. Supreme Court's 1971 decision in Cohen v. California that barred California from making it a crime for someone to wear a jacket with an expletive on it.

"I've worked with a few public institutions that want to regulate profanity in public places," he said, but it is difficult to do so. "My advice is to try informal approaches, particularly helping offended students challenge their peers. And sometimes a private, candid conversation with an offending student helps."

Pavela and others noted that the situation would be different if the student started shouting obscenities in the middle of a class or in other ways that disrupted a campus. "If you stand in a financial aid office and scream and scream and scream, that's not a First Amendment issue, that disrupts the office," said W. Scott Lewis, associate general counsel of Saint Mary's College, in Indiana, and president of the Association for Student Conduct Administration.

Lewis gives seminars for many colleges through the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, and he said that a consistently popular topic is how to train faculty members to manage their classrooms in ways that enable them to be respected by students. "We don't train faculty members on that," he said. "They are trained to be great physicists and political scientists, not on how to manage a classroom."

Several societal trends appear to be related to an increase in student rudeness, Lewis said. Many students these days "have a sense of entitlement, backed at times by their parents," many more have mental health issues, and many feel significant stress over the economy. Adding to these factors, he said, many professors say that they don't feel they are even "allowed" to challenge rude behavior.

While Lewis doesn't want them to challenge the behavior through the student disciplinary system, he said that faculty members can promote civility. He said that they should talk about expectations on the first day of class and in the syllabus, making expectations clear. "You need to talk about rights and responsibilities," he said.

Some professors go too far, Lewis said, in removing the distance between themselves and their students, and this is part of the problem. "You need to establish your role as a professor, and that means not having students use your first name, but calling you Professor or Dr.," he said.

Similarly, attire sends a message, he said. "If you show up for class in cargo shorts and a ratty polo shirt, you may feel that you are being one of the students. Well, you may accomplish that and become a peer" who doesn't get the same respect as a professor, he said. (Lewis, who still teaches, said that in front of a class, "I would be, at worst, in business casual.")

Others argue for more informal responses. The group blog Rate Your Students is no stranger to the topic of rude students. This post from February, for example, on such activities as in-class nose-picking, tobacco spitting and deodorant application, might make some think that an f-word or two wouldn't be so hard to take. One of the anonymous (and non-tenured) professors who moderate the blog shared some of the responses coming in to a question about the swearing incident and punishment at Hinds Community College.

"What would I do? I would just say 'You should have thought of that before turning in mediocre work.' And that would have been the end of it," said one of the blog's readers. Another said: "Foul language is not in itself worth a reply in my mind. We're not our students' mommies or daddies and disciplining them for what amounts to a poor word choice is simply not something I care to do."

The blog moderator said via e-mail that "the truth is that the modern student has a vulgarity lexicon that is rich and delicious, and occasionally the odd word will squirt out -- even during class. The proffie in question could have handled this a thousand different ways before dipping into whatever archaic document they have there in Mississippi that allows the passing out of 'demerits.' "

Added the blogger: "It's not inconceivable that the student merely over-reacted to a bad grade (what? when does that happen?), and a more pleasant response might have accomplished more than the resulting punishment ever will."

 

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