2013’s dumbest campus free speech cases

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Are you ready for a career change? Think the challenging field of college administration might be your ticket to exciting, high-paying employment? If so, first answer these questions: Do you believe in magic? Are you terrified of letters, or jokes, or art? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, please do yourself and everyone else a favor and stay out of college administration. If you don’t, you might might find yourself listed in a future edition of the below: the year’s dumbest campus free speech cases.

Modesto Junior College Believes in Magic Words: This California institution made national news earlier this year when it stopped a student from passing out U.S. Constitutions on Constitution Day, because it has apparently never heard the phrase “public relations disaster,” or, for that matter, “lawsuit.” What made the case one of the most absurd of the year, though, was the college bureaucrat caught on tape justifying the rules to student Robert Van Tuinen by saying the phrase “time, place, and manner” over and over as if she were the priest from The Exorcist chanting “the power of Christ compels you!” Alas for Modesto (and fortunately for America), misusing a phrase from a 1989 Supreme Court case does not actually exorcise the First Amendment from a public college campus. Thankfully, Modesto has suspended its rules while working on settling a lawsuit over the incident.

Dixie State Thinks it Owns the Alphabet: Dixie State University in Utah (yep, Utah) appears to be under the impression that the Constitution grants college bureaucrats in St. George, Utah, authority over what system of writing its students can use. Dixie State has been spending time and taxpayer money denying a group of students the ability to name their student club the “Phi Beta Pi Society” by banning the use of Greek letters in organization names. Dixie State is dead set against having fraternities or sororities on campus because their presence would supposedly lead the public to believe that Dixie State is a “party school.” Roman letters are apparently fine unless they spell out Greek letters like Phi Beta Pi. With this level of “logic” in evidence, it’s pretty clear that looking like a “party school” is not this crew’s biggest problem.

University of Central Florida Orders Psych Evaluation for Telling a Joke: Professor Hyung-il Jung found out the hard way what happens when your college has no sense of humor when UCF suspended him and ordered a psychological evaluation after he told a joke to his class. Must have been a really terrifying joke, right? Get ready, here it is: in an accounting exam review session, he told his class “This question is very difficult. It looks like you guys are being slowly suffocated by these questions. Am I on a killing spree or what?” Go ahead and take a moment to reach for the nearest smelling salts. Once you’re done, rest assured that UCF’s totally proportional response was to relieve him of all teaching duties, ban him from campus, and order that psych evaluation. Jung was not reinstated until UCF received a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) reminding the college that Jung was not actually on a “killing spree” when he told the joke and that such a joke was obviously not a true threat.

MIT Censors Apparently Terrifying Dorm Art: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology managed to find something even dumber than an accountant’s jokes to be terrifying and discriminatory: a mural. See if you can even figure this one out: MIT censored a dorm mural based on the popular ‘Penny Arcade’ webcomic that said the following: “We don’t usually review floors here at Penny Arcade — but we had to make an exception for Burton 1. This floor will eviscerate you with pleasure. You will bleed to death.” Yeah, I don’t really get it either, but 1) I am not a nerd who goes to MIT and 2) I am 100 percent certain that neither the figures on the mural itself nor Floor 1 of the Burton-Conner Dormitory are going to somehow use pleasurable methods to disembowel and exsanguinate me. Unfortunately, the MIT authorities were apparently not so sure, and decided to censor the mural because of (drumroll) Title IX, the federal law against sex discrimination in educational programs. If you do figure this out, please leave it in the comments, because I am at a total loss as to what a mural with no mention of sex or gender has to do with sexual discrimination of any kind.

While these cases were the year’s most ridiculous, they’re unfortunately not even the worst modern academia has to offer. Students and alumni who care about free speech should also check out FIRE’s list of this year’s Top 10 Worst Schools for Free Speech to read about some really frightening episodes of college censorship — and hope your school isn’t on there!