Today’s press release
highlights a free speech dispute at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Philosophy Ph.D. student Stuart Ditsler posted a quote by writer and humorist Dave Barry on his office door. The quote read, “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.” Seems harmless enough.
But within days, Ditsler received an e-mail
from Philosophy Department Chair James South, who had removed the quote after receiving complaints. South wrote, “I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not ‘free-speech zones.’ If material is patently offensive and has no obvious academic import or university sanction, I have little choice but to take note.”
Even by the most conservative standards, this quote cannot be duly described as “patently offensive,” a legal term more suited to hardcore pornography than to a popular author’s political witticism. While some people may not have agreed with the quote, it is hard to imagine that it caused such widespread and debilitating offense that it had to be banished from the hallway—especially from a philosophy department hallway.
Marquette is a Catholic university, yet has crafted its policies to reflect a liberal vision of academic freedom. The Student Handbook
has a policy that speaks to just this type of situation. It states, “It is clearly inevitable, and indeed essential, that the spirit of inquiry and challenge that the university seeks to encourage will produce many conflicts of ideas, opinions and proposals for action.” Marquette thus protects the “right of the members of the university community freely to communicate, by lawful demonstration and protest, the positions that they conscientiously espouse on vital issues of the day.”
So while Marquette is not directly bound to uphold the First Amendment, it bills itself as a place where students may express their political opinions, even if they ruffle some feathers in the process. Marquette’s Jesuit identity does not excuse its denial of these rights that it promises its students.