The other day I described how University of Wisconsin-Stout police got all censorious and thuggish about a rather inoffensive Firefly poster and an anti-fascism follow-up. Nathan Fillion and others took notice of the story, spreading it widely. The general hope was that once the matter left the hands of UWS Chief of Police Lisa A. Walter and reached the hands of someone with a room-temperature IQ and even a tenuous grasp of freedom of expression, the problem would be corrected.
We should have known better.
As FIRE reports, UWS Chancellor Charles W. Sorensen has reacted to nationwide ridicule by acting in an even more ridiculous fashion.
There have been recent news reports about an incident in which two posters hung by a UW-Stout professor outside his office were removed by campus police. There are some important points to consider in the wake of these incidents:
UW-Stout administrators believe strongly in the right of all students, faculty and staff to express themselves freely about issues on campus and off. This freedom is fundamental on a public university campus.
However, we also have the responsibility to promote a campus environment that is free from threats of any kind—both direct and implied. It was our belief, after consultation with UW System legal counsel, that the posters in question constituted an implied threat of violence. That is why they were removed.
This was not an act of censorship. This was an act of sensitivity to and care for our shared community, and was intended to maintain a campus climate in which everyone can feel welcome, safe and secure.
Chancellor Sorensen had some "important points to consider." I have some for him, as well:
1. The obligatory "we believe in freedom of expression" paragraph in the standard defend-our-censorship communique is simply embarrassing. That's why the Chicago Manual of Style For Censorious Dipshits ("CMSCD") recommends eschewing it and launching straight into the meat of your uninformed and conclusory stomping on First Amendment law.
2. The problem with demanding a campus free of "implied threats" is illustrated by this case. Campus police first censored a poster of an imaginary space cowboy with a fan-pleasing quote. Next, just to say FUCK YOU IRONY they used threats of official retaliation against a poster condemning threats of official retaliation. No rational person could construe either poster as a threat, actual or implied, to commit violence against any person (although I suppose the second could be construed as a warning — a correct one — that thugs will act thuggishly when questioned.) If a rational person wouldn't take it as an actual threat of violence, then it's not a true threat that can be censored, however much the hysterical, irrational, nanny-stating, coddling, or professionally emo think about it, and however much university chancellors would like to believe otherwise.
3. Similarly, this case illustrates the problem with an approach to freedom of expression premised on "sensitivity" and making people feel "welcome, safe and secure." "Sensitivity to hurt feelings" is not, in fact, a First Amendment value or a justification for censorship. In fact, stopping people from speaking because the speech hurts people's feelings is the essence of censorship. A system in which what we can say is premised upon the likely reactions of the mentally ill and the undernourished pussywillows of the world is a system that encourages suppression of all unpopular, forceful, interesting, or challenging speech. The irrational and the morally and mentally weak are not entitled to have their feelings protected through the force of law, however prevalent they are on campus.
4. If your "UW System Legal Counsel" told you that these posters could be censored based on their content, then stop hiring lawyers out of the back of a bait shop. Or were you using someone who splits their duties between "UW System Legal Counsel" and "Assistant Professor of Western Hegemony And Hurt Feelings Studies"?
5. "No it isn't!" and "nuh-uh" may be entertaining, but they are not actually legal arguments.
6. Fuck you, you censorship-apologizing, rule-of-law-obscuring, equivocating, worthless bureaucrat.
I think we need a new tag for "Twits in Academia" here at the hat. But the task of going back to all the old posts about academic twits and editing them to add the tag is daunting.
Last 5 posts by Ken White
- Free Speech Triumphant Or Free Speech In Retreat? - June 21st, 2017
- The Power To Generate Crimes Rather Than Merely Investigate Them - June 19th, 2017
- Free Speech, The Goose, And The Gander - June 17th, 2017
- Free Speech Tropes In The LA Times - June 8th, 2017
- I write letters - June 1st, 2017