Politics vs. Porn

By September 30, 2005

Earlier this week, my FIRE colleague Robert Shibley called Torch readers’ attention to a free speech controversy at Vassar College. Students there were outraged by the latest issue of The Imperialist, the publication of Vassar’s Moderate, Independent, and Conservative Alliance (MICA), because it criticized self-segregation on the part of minority students. There were many calls for The Imperialist and MICA to be defunded and/or derecognized by the student government.

Today, I spoke with Graydon Gordian, the editor of The Imperialist, and Matt Ambrose, the president of MICA. I am pleased to report that Vassar’s student government has apparently declined to penalize MICA in any way for the “offensive” material in The Imperialist—and, even better, Graydon and Matt seemed to have learned some important lessons about liberty from this experience. Rather than pledging to forfeit the free speech rights Vassar explicitly guarantees, they have offered to sponsor a forum on freedom of speech sometime between now and Vassar’s fall recess. (Inside Higher Ed reported that they were “ordered” to hold the forum, but Graydon told me it was his and Matt’s idea and merely “strongly urged” by the student government.) FIRE’s own Greg Lukianoff will hopefully be able to attend, with some copies of FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus in tow.

What’s going on at Vassar is not an isolated occurrence. First, Vassar, like many other colleges, has a red-light speech code—which I gather will be a topic of discussion at the upcoming forum and in future issues of The Imperialist. If students there truly care about freedom of speech—which student government members did in declining to truly censor The Imperialist—they will now closely scrutinize that immoral code. Second, Vassar is typical in that there appears to be a vicious double standard for “offensive” speech there. In this case, many students were highly inflamed by some pretty pedestrian criticisms of group identity, but no one seems to care that Vassar boasts what I am told is the nation’s first student pornography magazine. That reminds me of Boston University, which also has a red-light speech code but nonetheless allows a porn magazine to exist. This just further proves FIRE’s frequently made point that speech codes are rarely enacted in order to eliminate all possibly offensive speech. Rather, they are selectively enforced in order to protect some sensibilities. At both Vassar and BU, its seems pretty clear that those whose “social, moral, and religious feelings” (to quote from BU’s policy on “Tolerance of Others,” which demands that such feelings be “show[n] respect”) deem pornography to be offensive do not matter. And that’s fine—most pornography is protected by the First Amendment, which FIRE obviously believes should be respected. But if Vassar, BU, and the myriad other universities that attract FIRE’s scrutiny were even the slightest bit consistent in their supposed defense of free speech, they would not have speech codes in the first place.

But fear not: while the current problems at Vassar are not unique, the student activism that is going on there is not either. As you read this, FIRE is also helping brave students at George Washington, Colgate, the University of North Carolina, the University of Alabama, Rutgers, Bucknell, and other universities as they defend liberty on their campuses. Stay tuned to The Torch and FIRE’s website for more information on these exciting efforts.

Schools: Boston University Vassar College