The Unique Free Speech Challenges Facing Student Satire and Humor
February 1, 2013
by Azhar Majeed
As we wrap up Free Press Week, we take a look today at the unique challenges that college students face when engaging in satire and humor on campus, from humor magazines and editorial cartoons to satirical flyers and blogs. Like newspaper theft and denial of newspaper funding (which we have already explored this week), this is an issue that FIRE has seen time and time again on university campuses over the years.
For any number of reasons, parody, jokes, and satire-whether in print or otherwise—tend to rankle students and university administrators alike as few other forms of expression do. Consequently, student humor is often the target of calls for campus censorship and punishment. This despite the fact that, as FIRE has argued many times, parody, jokes, and satire exist precisely to challenge, to amuse, and even to offend. To witness, in Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the First Amendment protects even the most outlandishly offensive parody—in that case, a satirical advertisement suggesting that the Reverend Jerry Falwell lost his virginity in a drunken encounter with his mother in an outhouse. With respect specifically to the higher education setting, the Court has made clear that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste-on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.'" Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973). The same holds true, under the "contract theory," at private colleges and universities that have firmly committed themselves to free speech and open discourse on campus.
Yet in spite of these basic principles, we see student satire and humor censored or disciplined far too often, typically in the name of claimed "offense" or under faulty rationales of "harassment."
At Colorado College, for example, two male students were found guilty of violating the school's "violence" policy in 2008 for distributing a newsletter parodying a publication from the Feminist and Gender Studies program. Calling themselves "The Coalition of Some Dudes," in jest of the "Feminist and Gender Studies Interns," the two students produced "The Monthly Bag" as an answer to the Interns' flyer, "The Monthly Rag." Speech met with more speech, right? A harmless exchange of ideas on a college campus, one might think.
Colorado College did not see it that way. Using a blatant double standard, the college deemed The Monthly Bag to be too dangerous to be allowed on campus, pointing to the fact that it referenced such topics as "chainsaw etiquette," the shooting range of a sniper rifle, a quotation regarding a sexual position from the website menshealth.com, and a quotation about "female violence and abuse" of men from the website batteredmen.com. It evidently did not bother the administration too much that The Monthly Rag, for its part, discussed "male castration," an announcement about a lecture on "feminist porn" by a "world-famous prostitute and porn star," an explanation of "packing" (pretending to have a phallus), and a quotation from The Bitch Manifesto.
While both pieces should have been seen as protected under Colorado College's commitments to free speech (PDF), the college determined that the two male students had violated the "student code of conduct policy on violence" because their newsletter, while clearly a parody, created a "juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality" that made students subjectively feel threatened. The university has to this day refused to back down from its indefensible finding and punishment of the students, despite multiple efforts from FIRE, including several letters, exposure in U.S. News and World Report, and even a video about the matter and related cases. Colorado College still languishes on our "Red Alert" list, reserved for those few institutions that comprise the worst of the worst when it comes to campus liberty.
Of course, no discussion of university crackdowns and overreactions to protected satire would be complete without a mention of Len Audaer's case at Syracuse University. Loyal Torch followers will remember that back in 2010, Audaer, a law student at Syracuse's College of Law, was subjected to a prolonged and wrongheaded disciplinary investigation for allegedly running an anonymous satirical blog about life in law school. In the style of The Onion, the blog attributed obviously fake quotes to students, faculty, and staff at the College of Law and generally made fun of life in law school. Even though the blog included a disclaimer making clear that "No actual news stories appear on the site," the College of Law threatened Audaer with harassment charges for more than three months, and, making matters worse, refused to reveal the identity of his accusers or what expression in particular had justified the charges. When Audaer and his attorney attempted to receive information from Syracuse about the charges, the law school brazenly demanded that they sign a gag order that would have effectively prevented any media from reporting on the case using this information and effectively prevented Audaer from interviewing witnesses. For allegedly engaging in purely protected speech, Audaer was even threatened with expulsion.
Fortunately, he did not capitulate to Syracuse's demands and stood his ground on principle, with the backing of FIRE. Eventually the law school dropped the allegations against him, demonstrating that the charges of harassment had been nothing more than a baseless attempt to bully a student into accepting an indefensible punishment. While the case had a happy resolution, it remains a stain on Syracuse's free speech record and an abandonment of the university's stated commitment to free speech (PDF).
The traditional student press is not immune from campus pressure to censor student humor. Cases at Tufts University and the University of California at San Diego demonstrate that, even for established publications, student satire, parody, and other humor too often produce powerfully negative reactions on campus and, ultimately, calls for censorship and punishment. This is to FIRE's dismay and to our detriment as a society, given that such forms of expression are necessary and important for fighting existing orthodoxies, expressing social and political commentary, and challenging ideas.
If you are a student journalist who has been targeted or censored for engaging in such expression, please know that FIRE would be happy to help you defend your rights and stands ready and available to do just that!