As the summer of August burns away into September's fall, traditional parades of parents escorting their sons and daughters off to college are in full swing. After a long, relatively uneventful summer, students and administrators alike have returned and are eager to resume their own tradition: indulging their basest impulses.
Kicking things off this year are the luminaries at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. Having rented an off-campus apartment just across the street from campus, these polite young gentlemen put their best foot forward and hung signs from their balconies to make sure that everyone had a proper introduction to who and what they were:
Crass, crude, and clever only in that they managed to convert their message from its natural medium — scrawled on a bathroom stall — to a new canvas: what are probably their only bed sheets.1
This is, for all involved, a teachable moment: for incoming freshmen, a reminder that their peers may be prone to be inconsiderate creeps; for parents, an opportunity to teach their sons that this is exactly how not to treat women; for the campus community, a chance to roundly condemn and make a lasting example of these guys. ODU's student government did that, more or less.
Old Dominion itself went a step further, posting on Facebook:
Messages like the ones displayed yesterday by a few students on the balcony of their private residence are not and will not be tolerated. The moment University staff became aware of these banners, they worked to have them removed. At ODU, we foster a community of respect and dignity and these messages sickened us. They are not representative of our 3,000 faculty and staff, 25,000 students and our 130,000 alumni.
It's not clear what Old Dominion's staff did in working to "have [the banners] removed." A subsequent post by Old Dominion's president noted (vaguely) that the "incident will be reviewed immediately by those on campus empowered to do so" and that "[a]ny student found to have violated the code of conduct will be subject to disciplinary action."2 The threat that an administrator of a public institution, apprised that offensive speech will be removed and punished, is concerning, whether that speech takes place on campus, and more so when it takes place off campus. Were Old Dominion to follow through on its threat, it would certainly run afoul of the First Amendment.
Moreover, taking official action is unlikely to lead to a productive response. Offensive speech can often be a platform from which to signal to the broader world the boundaries of acceptable conduct and discourse. A racist song passed down through generations of fraternity members hell-bent on preserving 'tradition' reminds us that racism is alive and well, and provides an opportunity to educate the broader world about itself and its lasting, deep flaws. These teachable moments allow us to learn from the offended groups about how and why they're negatively impacted. Here, indeed, Old Dominion's president related a conversation he had with a student:
A young lady I talked to earlier today courageously described the true meaning of the hurt this caused. She thought seriously about going back home.
But she was heartened, she explained, when she saw how fellow students were reacting to this incident on social media. She realized this callous and senseless act did not reflect the Old Dominion she has come to love.
The boundaries of acceptable social conduct are ephemeral, shifting from one generation for the next, rendering them impossible to proscribe through clear, written rules. But we also recognize that patterns of conduct by a particular person (or group of people) can become so "severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from" the educational experience that it effectively operates to prevent someone from receiving an education at all.
Cretins hanging a banner don't meet that level, and pledging to remove isolated incidents offensive speech — on or off-campus — is vague at best, principled only in motivation3, and would work to deprive the campus community of an opportunity to learn about its constituents.
Moreover, at the end of the day, requiring the removal of offensive banners won't change the underlying behavior. It just makes it less likely that people will know who these guys are.
Rather, if Old Dominion is to regulate isolated incidents of speech, it would be better to force these guys to leave the banners up, so everyone recognizes these idiots for who they are. Remove all doubt.
- Odds are high that the sheets are unwashed. ▲
- That policy is itself vague, earning a 'yellow' rating from FIRE, as it proscribes "jokes" of a "sexual nature", rendering the policy constitutionally suspect at best. ▲
- If it's principled at all. Rather than motivated out of a desire to prevent offense, it's more likely to be driven by a desire to avoid bad press and uncomfortable criticism. ▲
Last 5 posts by Adam Steinbaugh
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- Old Dominion University: Offensive Messages On Private Property "Will Not Be Tolerated" - August 24th, 2015