Insult Obama? Not on this campus!

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Insulting the president and other government officials is practically a national pastime in the United States. This is a testament to the freedom of our society; in some parts of the world, insulting those who govern earns you swift punishment, or at least official censorship. That isn’t the case in America — unless you live on a college campus.

Students at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Texas found this out the hard way yesterday when they erected a “free speech wall” — a recently popular way for students to highlight the importance of free speech in which students put up a freestanding wall covered in paper, upon which anyone can write anything they want. Students jumped on the chance to participate. To cite a few examples: “Don’t hate against Gays …,” “If you make less than $200,000 Republicans don’t care about you,” “Life’s not a bitch, Life is a beautiful woman …,” “Han Solo Shot First,” “My boyfriend is a liar!,” “Legalize Weed!!!,” and “NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF!!!”

But just hours in, the free speech wall was vandalized by a professor — yes, a professor! — who was offended that someone had written “FUCK OBAMA” on the free speech wall. Students being students, the “F-word” was written on the wall many times about many different topics, but apparently the only expletive that offended this professor enough to take action was the one referring to President Obama.

The professor, whom students identified as Joe Kirk, demanded that the student groups sponsoring the wall — including Republicans, Democrats, libertarians and socialists — cover up only the Obama statement. They refused. He then told them that he would come back with a box cutter and cut it out of the wall himself, which he then did. You can see the before and after pictures at thefire.org.

Shocked that a professor would do this, the student organizers got in touch with the campus police. When the police arrived, they interviewed the students and the vandalizing professor. Then came the surprise: The police told the students that since Prof. Kirk was offended by some profanity on the wall, the students were engaging in “disorderly conduct,” a misdemeanor, and had to cover up all the swear words on the wall or take it down. Realizing that this would make a mockery out of the purpose of a free speech wall, the students simply disassembled the wall. Thus ended SHSU’s several hour-long experiment with free speech.

Profanity has always had a unique power to bring consternation to those who hear it; legendary comedian George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine made him famous precisely because he was willing to use such words. But the landmark Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California (1971) made clear that the First Amendment protects shocking or offensive expression, including the use of expletives in the communication of core political speech. In Cohen, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words “Fuck the Draft” in a county courthouse, writing that “one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric.”

Prof. Kirk does not appear to have been offended by the F-word itself, however — only at its use in an insult against the president. That’s the only one he cut out, after all. But the right of Americans to insult their leaders is just as protected as the right to use four-letter words. In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court made clear that the First Amendment requires that “[d]ebate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and … may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” And in Rankin v. McPherson (1987), the Court found that the First Amendment protected a deputy county constable’s expressed hope that if another attempt were to be made on President Reagan’s life, that it be successful. If that extreme statement constitutes protected speech, there is no question the words “FUCK OBAMA” are as well.

Worse still, the police, by threatening to charge the students with disorderly conduct rather than Prof. Kirk with vandalism, have established a “heckler’s veto” on SHSU’s campus. Institutions grant a “heckler’s veto” over expression when they allow the reactions of those who hear or see the expression to govern what might be said, creating an incentive for people to act disruptively or violently when confronted with speech they don’t like in the expectation that the police will shut it down. That’s precisely what happened in this case: Prof. Kirk’s destructive vandalism and claims of offense led the police to silence the expression of every student who wrote on the Free Speech Wall.

But in our free society, the police can’t censor speech simply because some people don’t like what’s being said. Instead, their job is to protect those with unpopular views from those who wish to silence them. And there are few places where this job is more important than a university campus, where it’s vital that all viewpoints be able to get a hearing if the search for knowledge is to take place.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) has written to SHSU President Dana Gibson asking her to restore free speech rights to her campus and allow students to express themselves and protest as the Constitution demands. Insults against President Obama might sound unpleasant to some, but the alternative — a society in which citizens must always meekly respect their leaders — is too unpleasant to contemplate.

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).