File Under ‘See No Evil’

By August 3, 2005

Terry Caesar penned a column Monday on Inside Higher Ed lamenting the chilling effect speech codes have on professorial humor. Citing one of FIRE’s favorite examples, the former speech code at the University of Connecticut, he wrote:

To relate an official response to some example of a joke, or even an unintended joke, on American campuses today is itself to appear to be telling a joke. Yet everybody knows speech codes that ban “inappropriately directed laughter” (say) are no joke. It’s not clear to me if a professor can be held accountable for a student who spontaneously tells a joke in class. But a professor in 2005 who tells a joke on his or her own would be a fool.

Caeser’s piece is a good read on an important topic—we are always thankful when others bring the pernicious influence of speech codes to light. What may be even more revealing than the column, however, is the dismissive response to it.

You see, Inside Higher Ed allows readers to post comments after perusing articles like Caesar’s, and in this case they are shocking. Two readers actually asserted that the op-ed must be satire. “Marty” claimed, “If Terry Caesar’s essay isn’t a satire, then I have no idea what he is talking about,” and “Anna” piled on with this remarkably confused statement:

Marty, you’re absolutely right. I have no idea what the author is talking about, unless this is satire. I don’t know of any campus where jokes have been banned (unless your only definition of a joke is something with ethnic slurs in it).

Well, I’m only 22, but I think I can give Marty and Anna an “idea what the author is talking about.” My own alma mater, Bucknell University, bans “anti-gay jokes” and “sexist jokes,” both of which it calls “harassment” and “verbal abuse,” and countless universities do the exact same thing, as browsing Spotlight easily shows. And these policies are not just idle threats: just to pick two recent cases, Jason Antebi at Occidental College and Tim Garneau at the University of New Hampshire were both punished for jokes that were taken the wrong way.

The second commenter also misses the boat by referencing “ethnic slurs”—what exactly is a “slur?” The “N-word” is the most classic example of a slur, but others use it as a term of affection. Is “Oreo” or “Uncle Tom,” both used to describe black conservatives, a slur? Do we really want to create “word crimes” that ban certain words regardless of context? As we wrote to Gonzaga University when it sought to punish a student group for posting flyers that used the word “hate” (bear in mind they only listed the title of Dan Flynn’s book Why the Left Hates America):

You can’t very well eradicate “hate”—as some administrators claim they are determined to do—if you can’t even utter the word.

Using vague concepts like “ethnic slur” invites the double standards that campus administrators (for example, those at Washington State) so often use.

The bottom line, of course, is that as FIRE always says, punishing speech simply because it is “offensive” is never okay and doing so with an intentional double standard makes the intolerable affront to liberty even worse. The reaction to Caesar’s article just shows that after five years and hundreds of examples since FIRE’s founding, some people simply refuse to see that there is a problem.

Schools: Bucknell University Washington State University Gonzaga University University of Connecticut University of New Hampshire Occidental College