Is This How You Would Treat a ‘Death Threat’?

By March 24, 2010

FIRE has received a couple of e-mails since today’s press release went out from correspondents who believe that, in fact, the University of Chicago did the right thing by investigating and censoring undergraduate student Tex Dozier’s Facebook statement that he had a dream that he had assassinated one of his professors, John Mearsheimer, co-author of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, on behalf of a “secret Israeli organization.” Here’s the exact quote, in context with several of the student’s adjoining Facebook status updates (in chronological order, with identifying information redacted as ***):

Homemade Indian feast compliments of ***! Mmmmm… :-) http://twitpic.com/***

Correction: Trish helped just as much as *** to prepare the delicious Indian feast. Please don’t beat me Trish. :-)
Dreamt that I assassinated John Mearsheimer for a secret Israeli organization – there was a hidden closet w/ Nazi paraphanelia. Haha! :-)

Perusing the Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman world – my prof’s cited 3 times. I actually got excited! #iamsuchaloser #uchicago

Someone just ripped a nice, loud fart in Harper Library. :-) #props #UChicago #finals

I doubt that I am alone in observing that these are not exactly the sort of Facebook status updates you would expect to see from the Unabomber, but perhaps the University of Chicago felt it had a need to check up on its student. (How extensive the university’s online monitoring must have been to find this status update is anyone’s guess.) And perhaps they felt it was most appropriate for him to be checked up on by the police. So far, this is within the realm of defensibility, if probably a bit overwrought. But better safe than sorry, right?

Not this time.

FIRE’s letter to U of C president Robert Zimmer presents the so-far undisputed facts of the case. The Mearsheimer status update was posted on December 6, 2009, at 11:18 A.M. At some point later that day and for part of the next day, U of C police officer Abraham Martinez placed several calls to Dozier’s cell phone, with Dozier finally picking up the call from the unknown number on the following day. When they finally talked, Martinez grilled Dozier for a while about his political views and campus radio show, and ultimately agreed not to tell Mearsheimer about the comment as long as it was deleted within two hours, which Dozier did. As far as the University of Chicago Police Department is concerned, that seems to have ended the matter, and as far as we know it didn’t tell Mearsheimer about the “threat.”

Unfortunatelyand here’s what those who have responded defending the U of C’s actions are missingnone of this behavior on behalf of the university makes any sense if the University actually believed Dozier’s Facebook comment to be a true threat. If someone’s life is seriously being threatened, do you expect the police to wait around for the potential assassin to answer a phone call so that you can ask them about it, or do you expect them to go find the potential culprit immediately?

Once Dozier was identified as not being a threat (as we must assume he was, since he was allowed to take a class with Professor Mearsheimer the following quarter), what, then, was the U of C’s justification for demanding he take down his Facebook status update or for threatening to investigate what he was saying on his campus radio show? Remember: the university had clearly determined that this comment was in fact a joke; otherwise it would not have simply left Dozier alone after censoring him. (One hopes, anyway.) What exactly did this censorship, which violates the university’s promises of free speech, accomplish?

Investigation of serious death threats is justified. Whether or not a statement that you had a dream about assassinating a professor for a secret Israeli organization that ends with a smiley-face emoticon constitutes a “serious death threat,” is, I suppose, up for debate (if you really, really stretch it). But censorship of someone’s joke about assassination is pointless either way. Either you are (a) pointlessly and repressively censoring ultimately harmless speech, or (b) you are advising a potential murderer to hide his motives from others until it could potentially be too late. The fact that there’s no logical way that any university would choose option (b) means that the University of Chicago can only have chosen option (a): pointlessly and repressively censoring harmless speech. That’s why FIRE objects to its actions.

Schools: University of Chicago Cases: University of Chicago: Censorship of Student’s Online Speech by University Police