Blurred Logic: University Censorship of Pop Hit Sends the Wrong Message

By on September 30, 2013

If you’ve listened to any radio station that plays pop music in the past few months, you have likely heard Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I.’s controversial smash hit “Blurred Lines.” Some critics assert that the song promotes a “rape culture” because of lyrics such as, “And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl; I know you want it; I know you want it.” Unfortunately, this has led the song to be the subject of numerous instances of campus censorship on both sides of the pond.  The first reports of colleges and universities banning the song came from five British universities. One proponent of the ban explained: “The song hugely objectifies woman [sic] and excuses rape culture,” said Hollie O’Connor, president of the University of Derby Students’ Union. “It is a man suggesting that there are ‘blurred lines’ when it comes to sexual consent and that is unacceptable. We felt we needed to take a stand.”  Of course, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution does not apply overseas. But luckily, here in the United States, the First Amendment protects art—even art deemed offensive to some—from the reaches of government censorship. Unfortunately, that hasn’t stopped officials (and at least one student) at Ohio University from pressuring the university’s Marching 110 to drop the song from its halftime performance list. And sadly, those calls for censorship were effective. According to The Columbus Dispatch: [T]here would be no Blurred Lines in Athens. Four days into the Marching 110’s rehearsal of the song, administrators asked Suk [the marching band’s director] to pull the performance. Suk, in his 17th year directing a band that has played songs that allude to abortion (Ben Fold Fives’ Brick) and drugs (Snoop Dogg’s Gin and Juice), said he didn’t find anything blatantly offensive in the song’s lyrics. But he didn’t want to make a political statement or upset anyone, he said. He agreed to kill the song.  This is a terrible result for those of us who value freedom of speech. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff explained in a recent interview in The Mancunion, the University of Manchester (UK) student newspaper: Trying to eliminate a pop song because it might be interpreted as offensive is just entirely wrongheaded. It misunderstands the point of free speech and it misunderstands the point of art. If you want to know human nature, if you want to know something about the good and bad aspects of human nature, then look at art. Writing of the university administration’s improper calls for censorship, the editorial board of OU’s independent student newspaper, The Post, wrote: We respect our administrators for allowing the Marching 110 to have the final say on whether the song was played, but we don’t think the pressure to cancel the performance should have been put on the band in the first place.The song is brash and distasteful, and we should consider the message it portrays to listeners.[…]However, while we believe the 110 should not have chosen to perform the song, we also believe the administration should not have stepped in. The university should not censor the music on campus; we students are adults now, and can form opinions for ourselves. While we at FIRE firmly agree with the sentiments expressed above in The Post’s editorial, we must part company with its conclusion that “[t]he initiative to ban the song from anywhere, if made, should come from the students.” Not even students should be entitled to prevent other students from hearing controversial ideas or considering controversial art, simply because some find the expressions offensive. Allowing that kind of heckler’s veto is also deeply troubling. Instead, the band should decide for itself what it wants to play, and its audience should feel free to celebrate or criticize the performances as its sees fit. We hope the Marching 110 will be the last marching band to cave to calls for censorship.Image: Screen capture of Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” music video