When Students Drop the F-Bomb

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 F#!% 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."

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