‘Problem’: Offensive speech. ‘Solution’: Censorship and vandalism?

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Because of the uproar over the YouTube video that was said to have led to uprisings against American interests in the Muslim world — including the death of our ambassador to Libya and three others — Americans are being confronted with a couple of unfortunate facts.

First, while Americans generally tolerate all manner of offensive or annoying speech under the First Amendment, those in foreign lands often don’t have much tolerance for free speech.

Second, while Americans at large widely scorn the idea that we should implement censorship in this country because some speech might make unreasonable people angry, there is a group of Americans who believe that we should seriously consider instituting such censorship — and they’re concentrated on our nation’s college campuses.

Last week, I wrote here on The Daily Caller about two such professors, and another has since joined the First Amendment pile-on. More are sure to come. Our campuses have become havens of bad ideas when it comes to censorship. Research by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) reveals that 65% of the nation’s biggest and most prestigious universities have speech codes that either are flatly unconstitutional (at public colleges) or that violate free speech principles that they themselves espouse (at private colleges). This nationwide scheme of repression is the most systematic form of censorship that takes place on our nation’s campuses.

But then there are the individual cases — for instance, when a professor just takes a box cutter and cuts political speech he doesn’t like right off a wall.

This madness actually happened at Sam Houston State University in Texas last year, when Professor Joe E. Kirk decided that he didn’t like some of what was written on a “free speech wall” organized by student Morgan Freeman (no relation that I know of) and constructed by four student political groups. The wall was built to teach students about their free speech rights — and it certainly did so, although not the way they had intended. FIRE’s newest video has the story.

What did Kirk do? He objected to the fact that someone had written (warning, bad language coming) “fuck Obama” on the free speech wall. He asked the students to cover it up. Considering that they were running a free speech wall, they refused. Kirk left and returned with a box cutter, and proceeded to physically cut the F-word off of the paper covering the wall.

“Hey! I don’t like swearing either!” you say. “Good for him!” Not so fast. This was hardly the only instance of that four-letter word on the wall. Whatever you may think of swearing (and it is constitutionally protected, particularly in the political context) the word is in common use at college, and it was written multiple times on the wall, including next to the name of President Bush. Kirk did not take any exception to those instances of the F-word. Nope, only for President Obama.

The students did exactly what you are supposed to do when you’ve been the subject of vandalism — they called the police. The campus police arrived, talked to the students and Professor Kirk, and proceeded to take Kirk’s side and threaten the students with a misdemeanor if they did not cover up the F-word everywhere on the wall! Realizing that their free speech wall had just become a government-approved speech wall, the students instead decided to quit and dismantle the wall.

Here’s a First Amendment pro tip: vandalism is illegal no matter what reason you think you have. Some people think you have the right to vandalize offensive speech or “hate speech.” You don’t. Columnist and commentator Mona Eltahawy found this out the hard way last week, when New York police arrested her for vandalizing a “Support Israel, Defeat Jihad” subway poster that she didn’t like. Too bad Sam Houston State didn’t likewise recognize obvious vandalism when it happened there.

But it’s really no surprise. Universities, which were intended to be the ultimate marketplace of ideas in a free society, have instead become centers for the spread of repressive ideas, with college administrators and some professors providing the intellectual support for the cause of censorship. Let’s hope that the current national discussion about free speech wakes Americans up to the fact that the most dangerous push for censorship in this country isn’t coming from abroad — it’s coming from their alma maters.

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