At Boston College, April Fool's Flyer Prompts Censorship, Punishment
April 4, 2008
Echoing the circumstances of FIRE's ongoing case at Colorado College, Boston College student newspaper The Heights reported yesterday that six students responsible for posting satirical flyers around campus are facing discipline for the flyers' "inflammatory" content.
While the group posted several different flyers, one in particular provoked the College's strong response. Posing as an advertisement for a "Black Baby Petting Zoo," the flyer mocked white students who travel on "service trips" abroad to volunteer during spring break. Instead of traveling, the flyer purported to offer students a chance to "satisfy your need to cleanse your whiteness" while remaining on campus.
The flyers were removed on orders from the Office of the Dean of Student Development, who contacted the Boston College Police Department. Shortly after the flyers' removal, the six sophomores responsible were identified. Paul Chebator, Dean of Student Development, told The Heights that the students involved were a "racially diverse group" who intended the flyers as "a social critique of people who go on service trips and come back and forget about social justice issues." Additionally, the students have voluntarily issued a public apology. Nevertheless, Chebator indicated that disciplinary action was pending:
"It is clear that their intent was not racially motivated or racist. However, they now understand that their actions could be construed as racist, and the University does not tolerate such behavior," Chebator said. "They need to be addressed and educated about the content of the fliers. This is an educational, not a punitive process."
Boston College should be ashamed. In its Statement of Rights and Responsibilities, Boston College claims to grant students "[t]he right to learn, which includes the right of access to ideas, the right of access to facts and opinions, the right to express ideas, and the right to discuss those ideas with others." But by censoring and threatening to punish students simply for engaging in provocative political satire—one of the most cherished modes of American political dialogue predating our nation's independence—the College has demonstrated its implicit contempt for the intellectual capacity of its own students.
Instead of allowing students to challenge each other's conceptions of race and volunteerism, Boston College has opted to "protect" them through censorship, lest they draw their own conclusions about the merits and cultural, social and political ramifications of service trips. Instead of having students educate each other through the dialogue this flyer inevitably would have started, Dean Chebator has decided that only Boston College administrators are fit to be the arbiters of what the flyer's content really means. In Chebator's "educational" process, flyers need to be officially "addressed" and students need to be officially "educated," with all substantive pedagogical direction being issued from the top down as an imperative command to be followed, not questioned. What a joke. It would be funny—if it wasn't sad.
The reaction of senior Rajwantie Sahai, co-president of the school's African-American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American Leadership Council, is instructive. Sahai told The Heights that initially she "did have a problem with the flier because I didn't really process at first what it was trying to say. It jarred me at first and scared me. Then I realized exactly what they were trying to point out." Sahai continued:
"I think the point was to make people think about service and what the term means. The point is to join with the community and against the injustices they face, not just go for a week or two and then come back, drink, and show off pictures of whatever young children you were having a good time with," Sahai said. "It was definitely an attack on the culture and climate at BC."
Sahai said that while she thought the flier was specifically targeting service groups and was not racist, it did point out a racial group and took a radical, abrasive approach to the issue.
"While I don't think the flier was racist or racially charged, I can understand how it would offend people at BC because it is intense and is a very extreme way of grabbing attention. If you throw out the term black, Latino, or any racial group, people automatically freeze up because they often see it as an attack," Sahai said. "But I think that it's a discussion that could have been raised a long time ago and is a discussion that needs to continue. Not only does it reflect on how students approach this action but also affects how the University can accommodate this kind of discussion about race theory itself."
The evolution of Sahai's reaction illustrates precisely the value of effective parody, which the censored flyer certainly seems to have been. By directly challenging commonly-accepted valuations, parody aims to provoke strong reactions in hopes of providing new perspective. That's exactly what happened with Sahai—and that's exactly why Boston College has erred in deciding to censor and punish students who dared to satirize the sensibilities of their fellow students.