U. of Cincinnati Cartoon: Crude? Perhaps. Protected Speech? Absolutely!
September 24, 2013
by Joseph Cohn
It’s been only a little over a year since a federal court ruled squarely against the University of Cincinnati’s blatantly unconstitutional “free speech zone,” so naturally one would think that administrators there would be boning up on their First Amendment law. Sadly, though, this may not be the case.
According to a September 30 column by Nick DeSantis in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Cincinnati administrators are still struggling with the concept that students at public universities have a constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. The controversy came about after an anonymous student apparently circulated this cartoon (PDF). DeSantis writes:
A controversial cartoon that was circulated anonymously this week at the University of Cincinnati has prompted a call for civility from the institution’s president and other campus leaders. The cartoon (seen in a local television station’s report here) depicted two African-American administrators, one of whom is Ronald L. Jackson, dean of the university’s College of Arts and Sciences, in a way that many criticized as racist. In a written statement, a group of campus officials, including Cincinnati’s president, Santa J. Ono, said the cartoon had “crossed the boundaries of civility on this campus.” They added that “this crude attack is an affront to the principle of justice that is central to a learning environment offering everyone an equal opportunity to contribute and flourish.” [Emphasis added.]
The administration’s full statement can be read here.
While the cartoon may strike some as “crude” or even “uncivil,” it is unfortunate that even after recently losing a high profile First Amendment lawsuit, President Ono apparently still doesn’t fully grasp that students at public universities have free speech rights—rights that guarantee that they are entitled to speak their minds, even when they do so in a way that offends others.
The right to speak “uncivilly” is well established. As the Supreme Court of the United States held in Texas v. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989). With regard specifically to the university setting, moreover, the Court has stated 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) (internal citations omitted).
FIRE hopes that administrators at the University of Cincinnati will abandon their claim that the cartoon “crossed the boundaries of civility” and acknowledge unequivocally that the cartoon is fully protected by the First Amendment.
Image: Entrance to main campus at University of Cincinnati - Wikpedia