In Defense of Humor

By on July 11, 2008

(Jaclyn Hall is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies Political Science and Philosophy. She is a 2008 FIRE Summer Intern.)

"Molly Smash!"

Thus reads the caption under a cartoon depicting a classmate’s head with Godzilla’s body smashing a Tokyo skyline drawn on the chalkboard in my AP Calculus class.

Picture commentaries were a favorite pastime in my high school and the source of many long-running inside jokes. My friend Luke was famous for a series in Mrs. Brown’s economics classroom entitled "If I were a pirate, I wouldn’t have to go to economics." The cartoon morphed into a song, homemade t-shirts, and an essay in the school Literary Magazine. The year before, Andy’s Cool Runnings parody launched an actual Dreher High School Bobsled Team. T-shirts declared us "state champions"not much competition in South Carolinaand the club claimed over 100 members in the yearbook photo by my senior year. The only thing missing was John Candy sporting a bad Jamaican accent.

These cartoons immediately came to mind when I read about FIRE’s ongoing case at Colorado College (CC). This spring, two students at the college were punished for distributing a parody flyer, "The Monthly Bag," as a counterpoint to the Feminist and Gender Studies’ publication "The Monthly Rag." I could just imagine my friends forming their own "Coalition of Some Dudes" to mock a teacher’s sandals or to emulate Thomas Nast by depicting Vice Principal Blakeney as Boss Tweed.

Chris Robinson, one of the "Dudes" at CC, defended his flyer as Nast’s brand of social satirea document intended to mock the views expressed by the feminist authors. Unpopular political viewpoints are certainly in serious danger of censorship and a brief glance in FIRE’s case archives shows how unfortunately often this occurs on campuses nationwide.

In my mind, however, the real victim of CC’s censorship is humor. The threat of suspension or expulsion for off-color jokes discourages funny speech, especially ideas expressed in tangible media like writing and art that rarely remain anonymous. Under CC’s scrutiny, the "Molly Smash" piece might garner a violence charge, prompt a sexual harassment suit, or even inspire an outcry as a threat against all students of Japanese descent. None of these scenarios are any more ridiculous than the situation at CC: administrators censured a flyer’s "juxtaposition of weaponry and sexuality" and asserted that student expression fully protected under CC’s own rules violated the school’s code of conduct.

After hearing about George Carlin’s recent death, I try to contemplate life in a society that has lost the ability to laugh at itself. I try to imagine my high school without pirates and Godzilla. I just hope that I will have more to laugh about than frivolous charges leveled against students with all too serious consequences.