University Utilizing Faulty Irony Detector Censors Flyer Protesting Its Censorship Policy

from the a-nice-warm-glass-of-shut-the-fuck-up dept

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 and everything 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 submission.

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. 

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Comments on “University Utilizing Faulty Irony Detector Censors Flyer Protesting Its Censorship Policy”

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Sheogorath (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“Where else is public speech strictly controlled? Oh, I Know. In countries with one party totalitarian regimes.”
Not just there. In England, I can get fined ?1000 pounds just for telling a copper to fuck off. That doesn’t stop me calling them an Andrex while telling them they should stop being a urine catheter and talking from where they should be passing waste, of course. I guess UK law enforcement is spectacularly thick, because members of another forum got what I said all right.

Zakida Paul says:

It’s not just Universities. Look at the justice system in the UK and the number of people who have been taken to court for being offensive on social networks. Anything remotely offensive or controversial can land you in trouble these days and that is bloody ludicrous.

Organisations are so keen to make sure they don’t offend anyone that they end up offending everyone by restricting their freedom of speech.

Beech says:

The problem is that public universities tend to forget that they are public entities. If your private employer decided that you couldn’t put “Fuck the draft” signs up in your cubicle, there would be no issue, besides that private censorship sucks too, but is legally permissible. In the same way, a private university pulling the same thing would be detestable, but legal. I’m sure the board for SVSU saw some case study from some other university got sued because some student got offended by something another student posted, then sued. This case is probably not about “protecting the student body” as much as “trying to avoid a lawsuit.”

On another note, isn’t the entire concept of the policy in breach of the first amendment? What if jackbooted thugs came to your house and pre-screened everything you said. What if you needed some bureaucrats permission to post something on a telephone pole? “Pre-screened sanitized Government-approved” speech is hardly the same thing as free speech.

Also, who the fuck is offended by curse words anymore? 90 year old grandmas? I can’t remember the last time I saw someone go into a swoon because someone said the “D” word, or “S”, etc.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Well I can tell you the new offensives on the block.

There are the stereotype curses, the gender curses, the ethnic curses, the religious curses, use any of those and you offend someone near you I guarantee.

The “D” word nobody cares but if you say the “G”(gender) word it will be an interesting day, or if you use the “I”(religion) or the “P”(religion) word or the “N”(ethinic).

Those are just examples of the new offensive terms that have supplanted the old cursing words.

Anonymous Coward says:

Dear Dark Helmet if you are referring to the image of the 60’s ~ 80’s that is long gone, for a long time now universities have not been a bastion for anything about civil liberties.

I suspect most of them are in fact populated by pompous managers with huge egos, that believe the sheep should be good and obey anything that is throw at them and don’t complain also most of them I believe were born without balls.

Michael (profile) says:


“Chapman’s reckless use of the word “fuck” had a purpose: to draw a parallel to a landmark free speech case”

A university intent on censoring it’s students should take a good hard look at their courses to make sure it isn’t teaching them the students about the history of free speech law in this country. It’s a bit like they handed him a sandwich and said “you better not eat this”.

out_of_the_blue says:

Free speech doesn't mean deliberate offending.

Problem is that vulgarism always descends into mere words and not ideas. That seems to be the case here where the whole point is to use certain words while not expressing any ideas except in contrived ploy to connect those to political speech.

I find it wise to avoid vulgar words, and helpful to euphemize as there are many people who simply don’t want to hear those words; they are offensive and distracting. Try using them to your grandmother. It’s not a big imposition to NOT spout off like a drunken sailor. The frequent use of those words doesn’t show wisdom or experience, just makes it obvious that you’re still children delighted saying “naughty” words.

Once upon a time those who went to university began to speak well to show they’d raised their sights. This policy of SVSU has a good goal of civilizing young savages: we all have to observe certain minimums, because we can ALL get down to savagery, that’s easy. Set your standards higher than empty vocalizing as any ARF-ING ankle-biter can do.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Free speech doesn't mean deliberate offending.

“I find it wise to avoid vulgar words”

“civilizing young savages”

“any ARF-ING ankle-biter”

The latter two directly contradict the former. No surprise. “Hypocrite” a synonym for out_of_the_blue.

“The frequent use of those words doesn’t show wisdom or experience, just makes it obvious that you’re still children delighted saying “naughty” words.”

Oh hey, that is especially ironic coming from you. Blue, try practicing what you preach. Then, and only then, can you wag your finger at others. You fucking ankle biter.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Free speech doesn't mean deliberate offending.

“Once upon a time those who went to university began to speak well to show they’d raised their sights.”

You really don’t know the meaning of the word “irony”, do you, boy?

The whole point of using the obscenity is to point out that free speech is being abrogated arbitrarily.
Since only someone with average (or higher) intelligence would understand that, it’s not surprising that you don’t get it.

Would you consider George Carlin to be stupid?
By your (admittedly-low) standards, he’d be graded as a moron for his “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Televison” monologue alone!

Will says:

Re: Free speech doesn't mean deliberate offending.

Fuck you. Fuck your point of view when your point of view includes forcing other people not to do things because it hurts your precious little feeling. There is a difference between teaching people to be polite and trying to force people to fall in line with what a select few deem “appropriate.” If you agree with the latter, again FUCK YOU.

John says:

What Did Our Founding Fathers Use For Profanity

The “F” bomb. What did we do before it became so offensive? Surely our angry ancestors had words to express themselves in an angry and offensive manner.

I believe the “F” bomb serves its purpose well in modifying an idea or expression to deliver more impact and feeling.

I believe in free speech and defend the use of the word fuck or its many combinations and expressions.

Why use another word when the word fuck says it precisely?

Applesauce says:

An Alternate Solution

My solution would have been to get together with my friends and fellow students and file a complaint with the administration for EVERY poster on campus. I guarantee I can find someone who can make a claim that ANY given poster, including those by the University itself are offensive in some way. Each and every one.

Don’t turn off the tap; open it up all the way.

Anita Icenhour says:

Rule Number 21

Which states, AHEM…..”You’re offended? So what? A willingness to be offended at the smallest slight is not a sign of a superior consciousness—it is a decision to be a whiner and an emotional bully.
This may come as a surprise, but living in a free country does not mean that you are free from annoyance or immune to things that offend you, and it certainly does not give you a license to silence, reeducate, or harass people with whom you disagree. If you want to avoid being offended, you should probably try a Buddhist monastery rather than, say, public transportation or a modern university. Excerpt from the book “50 Rules Kids Won’t Learn In School” by Charles J. Sykes
Of course, until the courts stand up and refuse these RIDICULOUS lawsuits brought by these emotional bullies, it’s unlikely that institutions of higher learning are going to stop preparing their defenses against them.

MikeC (profile) says:

Tolerance -- only goes one way

Ever notice how tolerance only goes one way…. the offended say that someone doesn’t tolerate their right to not be offended but in turn because they are complaining so they don’t tolerate the right of someone to offend them?

I find many political and personal choices offending in some manner but I don’t seek to prevent them from expressing their point of view, acting on their choices, etc..

I “Tolerate” them, but when I express the point of view that I don’t agree with them, I am intolerant and must be silenced.

This is an example of the same re-occurring event throughout human interaction, the intolerance of anything someone feels might make them uncomfortable – the need to tell others how to live their life. But then again that is what I am doing right now – except if they choose not to listen to me, I won’t try to disallow them from being heard – and I am “in tolerant”. Good thing I ignore the noise.


John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Tolerance -- only goes one way

the offended say that someone doesn’t tolerate their right to not be offended

Yes, and this is where it all goes wrong. Not only is there no such thing as a “right not to be offended,” being exposed to things that you find offensive is a natural and inevitable consequence of having the right to free speech. Every time I see or hear something offensive, a part of me celebrates it as a healthy sign.

mustafa muzaffer nişancı (user link) says:


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