A speech code is any rule or regulation that limits, restricts, or bans speech beyond the strict legal limitations upon freedom of speech or press found in the legal definitions of harassment, slander, libel, and fighting words. Such codes are common in the workplace, in universities, and in private organizations. The term may be applied to regulations that do not explicitly prohibit particular words or sentences. Speech codes are often applied for the purpose of suppressing hate speech or other socially disagreeable forms of discourse.
Use of the term is in many cases valuative; those opposing a particular regulation may refer to it as a speech code, while supporters will prefer to describe it as, for example and depending on the circumstances, a harassment policy. This is particularly the case in academic contexts. The difference may be ascertained by determining if the harassment policy bans more than what is legally defined as harassment; one that does is almost certainly a speech code.
One web site describes behavior that speech codes are meant to prevent:
Today, most talk of speech codes is within institutional contexts and refer to colleges or corporations and refers to official lists and rules established by authorities.
One particular case, the University of Pennsylvania “Water Buffalo” case, highlighted reasons for and against speech codes and is typical of such cases. In the University of Pennsylvania case, a freshman faced expulsion when he called African American sorority members “water buffalo”. Some saw the statement as racist while others simply saw it as a general insult. Questions were raised about how far was too far when interpreting and punishing statements like the one in question. The college eventually dropped the charges amid national criticism (Downs, 1993).
The second reason is more abstract, leaving room for argument both for and against the reason. One author states, “Second, [speech codes] are linked to a broader ideological agenda designed to foster an egalitarian vision of social justice” (Downs, 1993). Because many institutions hold such a view in their mission statements, the justification for a policy in line with the views of the institution comes quite naturally. However, opponents of speech codes often maintain that any restriction on speech is a violation of the First Amendment. Because words and phrases typically belonging in the hate speech category could also be used in literature, quoted for socially acceptable purposes or used out loud as examples of what not to say in certain situations, it can be argued that the words and phrases have practical, intrinsic value and therefore should not be banned.
According to one scholar, hate speech complaints are up on campuses everywhere, pressuring universities to create speech codes of their own. He states:
Examples of communication illegal under speech codes include Holocaust denial, racist or sexist speech. More stringent policies include a ban on anything deemed offensive, such as ridicule against another person.