The Colonel’s secret recipe: censorship

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Forget about fraternity rush, spring break, and cramming for exams. The students and faculty of Northern Kentucky University (NKU) have brought a disturbing new tradition to campus: justifying the destruction of pro-life displays as “freedom of speech.”

2006 marks the first report of NKU students tearing down pro-life displays. In April of that year, tenured literature professor Sally Jacobsen was outraged when she spotted a large collection of crosses in the ground near the NKU University Center. The display, entitled “Cemetery of the Innocents,” represented aborted infants and had been erected by the student pro-life group Northern Right to Life with the permission of the university — and with the full protection of the First Amendment.

Professor Jacobsen, however, called the exhibit a “slap in the face” to women who were contemplating having an abortion, and invited her students “to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy the display.” At her urging, the students pulled up approximately 400 crosses and threw them in the trash. Jacobsen herself was photographed attacking the display.

Although Sally Jacobsen left NKU after being placed on leave, her example inspired a legacy of violence against pro-life displays on campus. According to Nathaniel Hall, a member of Northern Right to Life, “[t]here has not been a year when [pro-life] flyers, crosses, and other displays have not been torn apart or broken” at NKU.

A couple of weeks ago, NKU’s unfortunate tradition made the headlines again. Northern Right to Life set up another pro-life exhibit, this time consisting of baby clothes hanging on a line. A red “x” was marked on every fourth garment to represent the percentage of infants aborted in America. Yet again, some NKU students rallied against this constitutionally protected form of expression. Under cover of darkness, vandals tore down the display — not just once, but twice.

Frustrated, Northern Right to Life decided to identify the attackers. Along with a friend, Nathaniel Hall hid near the twice-rebuilt display, inside a boxlike metal sculpture. As they watched, a student ran up to the clothesline and began cutting it down. Hall and his friends called the police and chased the student and his gang of vandals across campus until campus police caught three of them. (A fourth suspect later turned himself in.)

What makes this case so chilling is that the fourth suspect, Kyle Pickett, parroted Sally Jacobsen’s earlier invocation of the First Amendment, stating: “Tearing it down was expressing our right to free speech.” Somehow, both Pickett and Jacobsen came to the conclusion that the First Amendment gave them the right to engage in the destruction of someone else’s message. But responding to speech through physical violence, against either people or objects, is a criminal act with no constitutional protection. After all, we have no right to burn down the homes of those who insult us. Sally Jacobson, Kyle Pickett, and Kyle’s fellow vandals learned this the hard way; they were all charged with criminal mischief, with additional charges of criminal solicitation and theft filed against Jacobsen.

But Jacobsen’s own words reveal an alarming belief that physical aggression is an appropriate response to speech: “Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it.”

When a tenured professor declares that feeling offended is far worse than physically destroying things, and when the First Amendment is twisted to justify the unconstitutional silencing of constitutionally protected expression, we have to wonder what kinds of lessons NKU students are learning about freedom of speech. I hope that the coming year brings these students the understanding that childish rampages are not legitimate responses to speech. It is past time for NKU’s shameful tradition to end.

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