Civil Liberties

Law Students Wrote This Unconstitutional, Ungrammatical Speech Code: 'Do Not Comment Despairingly on Others'

University of Missouri School of Law students told to self-censor on social media.



According to a new social media policy, students enrolled in the University of Missouri School of Law must communicate in a "respectful and friendly manner," be "transparent"—but not too transparent—and avoid commenting "despairingly on others."

This last requirement makes no sense in context; presumably the authors of the policy intended to forbid disparaging comments, not despairing comments. Either way, the policy is nonsense—a university may not prevent students from posting unkind remarks on social media.

And who wrote this censorious, ungrammatical, brazenly unconstitutional speech code? You guessed it: the law students. Specifically, the officers of MU's Student Bar Association, which comprises "every member of the law school's student body," according to its website.

Above the Law's Elie Mystal exposed the new social media policy in a recent article:

It is easily the worst social media policy I have ever seen. It is probably the worst social media policy you have seen. It is so bad that a University of Missouri student could get in trouble for going on Facebook and talking about how bad the policy is. 

I'm afraid to actually quote directly from the policy, lest somebody send it to Kim Jong-un to give him new ideas on how to crush the freedom of his people. But the policy is so disgustingly anti-intellectual and anti-expression that it's worth the risk.

This isn't hyperbole; the policy really is that bad:

Before you post content to any social-media outlet affiliated, or reasonably possible to be associated with; yourself, the School of Law, the student organizations here at the school, the Missouri Bar Association, the American Bar Association, or any other legal association, and the University of Missouri, please take a moment to review our official guidelines.

If you are a member of the University of Missouri School of Law—Student Bar Association (i.e. a person enrolled in classes at the University of Missouri School of Law), then these rules apply to you.

These rules—rules that all law students are supposedly obligated to follow—are farcically censorious. They instruct students to re-read their comments before they post them to screen for any content that could be construed as "negative or inappropriate." Disagreements should only be addressed in a "professional and respectful manner." Transparency is required, but students must also be careful not to be so transparent that they violate anyone's privacy. The rules not only restrict speech—they also compel it; "Engage in conversation," the policy blithely commands.

Such a policy is unenforceable on sheer practicality grounds (not to mention First Amendment grounds), and yet the officers of SBA not only expect students to obey—they expect students to inform on other students who violate the policy:

It is the duty of each member of the SBA to report instances of possible non-compliance with this policy to the Vice-President of the SBA-all reports will be kept anonymous and in confidence.

Keep in mind that the SBA wrongly believes its power to regulate speech includes students posting on "any social-media affiliated outlet, or reasonably possible to be associated with; yourself." To the extent this declaration makes any sense, I understand it to include personal Facebook pages.

Since I am not a Missouri law student, I presume no one is attempting to deny my right to make despairing—er, disparaging—remarks about the policy.  To that end, I tweeted at the SBA for clarification on its social media policy; this post will be updated if I receive a response.