It's incredibly odd that institutions of higher learning are so intent on treating their students, who are all adults in the law's eyes, as overly sensitive children who need to be kept in a protective, non-offensive bubble during their stay on campus. Even stranger, one would think that "higher learning" would be a bastion of free speech, as encountering unfamiliar, offensive or otherwise reprehensible viewpoints opens new areas for debate and encourages critical thinking. Instead, free speech is at its most restrained on a majority of campuses out of administrative fear that someone, somewhere might
be offended. But this would force the administration to treat those in these circumstances like adults in a free society, one that holds individuals responsible for their words and actions, which is something they are less than inclined to do.
What happens instead is a sanitized "hive mind" atmosphere in which every student is treated as part of a collective "student body," an entity whose tolerance for "offensive" speech is constantly calibrated to the most "sensitive" members of this whole. Once the walk over the eggshells of "free" speech begins, situations loaded with unintentional irony arise
Blatantly ignoring the First Amendment, administrators at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) in Michigan's Tri-Cities area have repeatedly censored a student's posters—ironically, posters that protest a new, unconstitutional SVSU policy that allows the school to censor student postings.
Over the summer, SVSU adopted a new posting policy that requires all flyers to be approved by the Student Life office. The policy states that all postings "[m]ust be in good taste, free from profanity, nudity, or sexually suggestive graphics/phrasing," and "[c]annot include discriminatory or derogatory statements or graphics." The policy did not define "good taste," or what is "discriminatory or derogatory," leaving students to guess what might or might not pass muster with the subjective opinions of SVSU administrators.
The rules may seem sensible at first glance, but as FIRE points out, vague terms like "good taste" or "derogatory" leave the door wide open for inconsistent application of the policy, as well as allowing anything
that someone might
find "tasteless" or "derogatory" to be censored by the Student Life office. The ambiguity of the policy doesn't end there. The full posting policy also notes that the Student Life office reserves the right to refuse any
An SVSU student correctly concluded that this policy was restricting free speech on campus. And that's where the fun began.
On August 29, student Daniel Chapman, believing the new speech code to be unconstitutional, submitted posters for approval stating "Fuck Censorship, Fuck Oppression, Fuck the Draft. Fight for Free Speech and Political Expression at SVSU and Elsewhere."
On the face of it, Chapman's protest seems almost childish and clearly violates the "no profanity" policy. But Chapman's reckless use of the word "fuck" had a purpose: to draw a parallel to a landmark free speech case.
As Chapman explained in an email to an administrator, he purposely chose this slogan to parallel the seminal 1971 Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California, in which the Court made clear that the First Amendment protects the use of expletives in the communication of core political speech. In Cohen, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Vietnam War protester for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words "Fuck the Draft" in a county courthouse. The Court held that the message on Cohen's jacket, however offensive to some, was protected speech, writing that "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric."
Student Life and school administrators remained unimpressed. So, Chapman practiced a little self-censorship in order to get his fliers approved.
The next day, Chapman also submitted pre-censored posters for approval reading "F*ck Censorship" and "F!_!ck Censorship."
Still no good. Apparently, the punctuation was still too strong and SVSU refused to approve the pre-censored fliers, opting instead to approve the comparatively toothless "Stand Up for Free Speech" version. At this point, Chapman contacted FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) which sent off two letters informing SVSU that its policy violated the First Amendment.
"It is difficult to understand how SVSU administrators, after consulting with a lawyer, could believe they have the right to censor political speech that contains profanity—even censored profanity—when the Supreme Court has made clear that the exact opposite is true," said FIRE Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris. "While their apparent dislike for expletives may be sincere, President Gilbertson and his administration must know that their actions violate the First Amendment. They need to understand that, just like Americans' other civil rights, the First Amendment is not optional, and that as public servants, constitutional obligations come first."
The letters went unanswered and FIRE is now planning to take Chapman's complaint to the next level and inform the governor and Michigan state attorney that SVSU's disregard for its students' rights opens it up to potential liability.
Beyond the legal issues, there's the administration's firm belief that the use of an expletive is somehow offensive to a large enough portion of it's presumably foul-mouthed-as-any-other-budding-adult student body will be offended not only by a printed "Fuck" but also by any variation substituting common punctuation for the evil "u." Is the risk of offense so great
that it's willing to defend its actions in court? But I doubt this is actually about some stray F-words and more about a pet policy being openly challenged. Now SVSU is in the unenviable position of ceding ground to someone it desperately wants to shut up or going toe-to-toe with an organization more well-versed in First Amendment rights than it is.