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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Speech codes discriminate against ‘neurodiverse’ students

College students with autism and other “neurodiverse” conditions could use the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to overturn speech codes, writes Geoffrey Miller, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, on Quillette.

“Restrictive speech norms impose impossible expectations on the social sensitivity, cultural awareness, verbal precision, and self-control of many neurodivergent people,” he writes.

He estimates that least 20 percent of college students, staff and faculty have mental disorders that make it difficult to follow ambiguous, shifting social norms.

They might be able to memorize “lists of prohibited words, forbidden ideas, banned images, and unwelcome mating tactics,” but “no public university would dare to print such lists of communication taboos, since the First Amendment violations would be all too conspicuous.”

So, universities have to keep their speech codes vague and overbroad. But then, vagueness and overbreadth are also unconstitutional. In particular, speech codes are unconstitutional if they impose a ‘chilling effect’ because they’re too imprecise about what they actually prohibit, so they force even the most reasonable people to err on the side of caution and self-censorship. . . . if a graduate student with Asperger’s knows that they can’t predict other people’s reactions to what they say, and what they say could get them in trouble with university administrators, they may become very risk-averse about how they communicate – if they communicate at all. A speech code that imposes only a mild chilling effect on the neurotypical may impose a strong chilling effect on the neurodivergent. This is a discriminatory and illegal ‘disparate impact’ against the free speech rights of neurominorities.

Miller suggests neurodiverse students ask for speech codes to be translated into specifics they can understand.

  1. If the ‘sexual misconduct policy’ prohibits ‘sexist comments’, ask for specific examples of what would count as a sexist comment, versus an acceptable comment about biological sex differences. If the ‘respectful campus policy’ prohibits ‘displaying objectionable posters’, ask for specifics about what visual motifs, themes, and artists would be acceptable, and which would not.

  2. If you have any impulse-control issues or ‘Theory of Mind’ issues that make it likely you’ll say ‘offensive’ or ‘inappropriate’ things sometimes, ask what accommodations the university can offer. You might need this if you have bipolar disorder, Tourette syndrome, ADHD, or a personality disorder. Ask for specifics: if ‘unwelcome jokes about a protected characteristic’ are prohibited, but you won’t realistically be able to inhibit all of the unwelcome jokes that you might ever make, in all social situations, ask how many ‘unwelcome jokes’ per semester you’re allowed to make without getting into trouble.

“The harder you push them to be specific, the more absurd they may realize the speech codes really are,” writes Miller.

He wants universities to return to being “eccentricity-havens.

Fifteen Ivy League professors are urging students to “think for yourself.”

In today’s climate, it’s all-too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture. The danger any student—or faculty member—faces today is falling into the vice of conformism, yielding to groupthink. At many colleges and universities what John Stuart Mill called “the tyranny of public opinion” does more than merely discourage students from dissenting from prevailing views on moral, political, and other types of questions. It leads them to suppose that dominant views are so obviously correct that only a bigot or a crank could question them. Since no one wants to be, or be thought of as, a bigot or a crank, the easy, lazy way to proceed is simply by falling into line with campus orthodoxies. Don’t do that. Think for yourself.

Apparently, they felt it was necessary.

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