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Encyclopedia > Speech code



A basic definition of speech code by sociologist Basil Bernstein is, "...a coding principle is a rule governing what to say and how to say it in a particular context" (Miller, 2005). There are two distinct areas under the speech code heading.

The first is speech code as a set of guidelines that are designed to prevent hate speech or other socially disagreeable forms of discourse.

The second refers to a framework for communication in a given speech community. Both are contained within Speech Code Theory.

Today, speech code most often refers to 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.

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.

In the United States, the Supreme Court has not issued a direct ruling on whether speech codes at public universities are unconstitutional. However, a federal district court ruling which struck down a speech code at the University of Michigan indicates that broad speech codes seeking to prohibit hate speech probably violate the First Amendment (Doe v. University of Michigan, 1989). Subsequent challenges against speech codes couched in harassment policies, diversity mandates, and so forth instead of being self-identified as speech codes have generally succeeded to date.

One web site describes behavior that speech codes are meant to prevent:

Discriminatory harassment includes conduct (oral, written, graphic or physical) directed against any person or, group of persons because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or veteran's status and that has the purpose or reasonably foreseeable effect of creating an offensive, demeaning, intimidating, or hostile environment for that person or group of persons

(Uelmen, 1993).

According to communication professor and author Katherine Miller (2005), speech code theory has a background in anthropology, linguistics and communication.

History and Important Works; Speech Code Theory

Work by Gerry Philipsen has been influential in the development of speech codes theory. Work in the 1960’s influences the theory as it stands today in the field of communication.

Works by Basil Bernstein heavily influences Philipsen. Berstein used the term speech codes in sociology and further elaborated on speech codes and their contexts. He also contributed his concise definition, "a coding principle is a rule governing what to say and how to say it in a particular context" (Miller, 2005).

Another important influence is the work of anthropologist and linguist Del Hymes (Miller,2005). His focus was on local speech practices in various cultural and social situations.

Hymes constructed the SPEAKING model to aid in the search for speech codes in specific speech communities and the letters stand for the following (as reported by Miller):

Situtation (setting or scene) Participants (analysis of personalities and social positions or relationships) Ends (goals and outcomes) Acts (message form, content, etc.) Key (tone or mode) Instrumentalities (channels or modalities used) Norms (framework for producing and processing messages) Genre (interaction type)

An oft-cited study, the “Teamsterville” study, was conducted by Philipsen in Chicago. The study took place in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. According to Miller, the “Teamsterville” nickname was given to the area of Chicago studied because truck driving was a primary job in that area for men. He studied the speech codes of the men and was able to pinpoint the style of interaction and highlighted important aspects such as styles of child discipline and talk among coworkers. As a followup, another study, the “Nacirema” (American spelled backwards) study was conducted that contrasted the speech of Teamsterville with that of the average American (Miller,2005).

Using these two studies, Philipsen outlined statements that summarize the work within speech code theory. The statements are reported by Miller as follows:

•The distinctiveness of speech codes (for each specific culture, there is a specific code(s) )

•The multiplicity of speech codes (in any speech community, multiple speech codes will be present)

•The substance of speech codes (the distinct elements such as sociology and psychology that make up self-expression)

•The meaning of speech codes (speech depends on codes for meaning)

•The site of speech codes (speech and speech codes interwoven).

•The discursive force of speech codes (speech codes have an impact on social life)

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).

Reasons for Speech Codes

There are two distinct reasons given for the implementation of speech codes, most often given in the context of higher education institutions. The first is as follows, “First, to protect vulnerable students from threatening, truly harassing speech that amounts to "fighting words," which are not protected by the First Amendment. So far, so good “ (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:

There were approximately 75 hate speech codes in place at U.S. colleges and universities in 1990; by 1991, the number grew to over 300. School administrators institute codes primarily to foster productive learning environments in the face of rising racially motivated and other offensive incidents on many campuses. According to a recent study, reports of campus harassment increased 400 percent between 1985 and 1990. Moreover, 80 percent of campus harassment incidents go unreported

(Uelman, 1992).

Examples of places with speech codes

•Colleges and Universities

•Public Institutions



Examples of Speech Illegal Under Speech Codes

Examples of communication illegal under speech codes include Holocaust denial, racist or sexist speech. More stringent policies include a ban on anything that remotely could be offensive, such as ridicule against another person.

Examples of Places and Situations With Speech Codes

Within cultures In workplaces (note that workplaces often do have official speech codes) Within social groups such as special-interest clubs and organizations.

See also

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education First Amendment Center University of Michigan Case [2]


Downs, Donald (1993). Codes say darnedest things. Quill; Vol. 81 Issue 8, p19, October. Miller, Katherine. (2005). Communication Theories. New York: McGraw Hill Uelmen, Gerald (1992). The Price of Free Speech: Campus Hate Speech Codes. Issues in Ethics - V. 5, N. 2, Summer 1992. Murkkula Center For Applied Ethics.[3]

  Results from FactBites:
speech encoding: Information from Answers.com (685 words)
Speech coding is the compression of speech (into a code) for transmission with speech codecs that use audio signal processing and speech processing techniques.
The techniques used in speech coding are similar to that in audio data compression and audio coding where knowledge in psychoacoustics is used to transmit only data that is relevant to the human auditory system.
In addition to the actual speech coding of the signal, it is often necessary to use channel coding for transmission, to avoid losses due to transmission errors.
  More results at FactBites »



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