Professor Cuts Out Insult to Obama on Students’ ‘Free Speech Wall’ with Box Cutter; Police Threaten Students with Misdemeanor for Public Profanity

By on September 23, 2011

Sometimes here at FIRE we think we’ve seen it all. Yesterday, however, we were shocked by the outrageous violations of free speech at Sam Houston State University (SHSU).  

To protest a controversial new social media policy, four SHSU student groups organized a "free speech wall," a large field of paper with a wooden frame, upon which students could write the message of their choice. Someone wrote "FUCK OBAMA" on one section of the wall, and other students replied in kind: "FUCK BUSH" followed, as well as other comments. 

But what happened next is what’s so outrageous. An SHSU faculty member offended by the insult to President Obama reportedly used a box cutter to cut the expletive out of the wall after students refused to accede to his demand to censor that particular speech. The shocked students were advised by an SHSU dean to contact the campus police, and they did so. But after the students called the campus police to report the vandalism, they were threatened by a campus police officer with charges of disturbing the peace and required to remove all profanity from the wall, or else take it down! Under this pressure, the students dismantled their "free speech wall"—and then contacted FIRE.   

This morning, FIRE wrote SHSU President Dana L. Gibson with the story:

The four groups—SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Sam Houston Democratic Socialists, and College Republicans—stated on the Facebook page for the event, "Come exercise your freedom of speech by writing whatever you want on the wall and sign the petition to let the university know we never want this policy to go into effect!!" The students had received permission from SHSU to erect the wall. 

Many students wrote a variety of political and other messages on the wall, including "don’t hate against Gays …," "If you make less than $200,000 Republicans don’t care about you," "God so loved the world He sent His one and only son …," "Best thing I’ve ever seen at this raggedy school!!!," "Life’s not a bitch, Life is a beautiful woman …," "Han Solo Shot First," "My boyfriend is a liar!," "Legalize Weed!!!," "NAZI PUNKS FUCK OFF!!!," and "FUCK OBAMA." In response to "FUCK OBAMA," others continued the conversation. One person wrote "BUSH" under "OBAMA." Another added "you," apparently to signify saying "fuck you" to the person who had written "FUCK OBAMA."

According to a statement to police filed yesterday by SHSU Lovers of Liberty President Morgan Freeman, at about 1:30 pm SHSU Professor of Mathematics Joe E. Kirk demanded that the student organizers cover up the part of the wall that read "FUCK OBAMA." Then, per Freeman’s statement to police, Kirk took action when the students refused to accede to his demand for censorship:

When we refused he told us he would bring a box cutter down and remove it himself. He left and returned a few minutes later and cut (with a box cutter) out the "fuck" part. 

Photos of the wall show that Kirk did not cut out any of the other words from the wall, including any other instances of "fuck" or other profanity. 

According to Freeman’s police report, the students then notified SHSU Lovers of Liberty faculty adviser Kenneth E. Hendrickson III about Kirk’s vandalism, who notified one of the SHSU deans, who in turn advised the students to call the police because Kirk had used a box cutter to vandalize the wall. The students did so. A SHSU Police Department officer interviewed the students and then Kirk. Following his interview with Kirk, the officer returned to the students and informed them that they must either cover up all of the profanity on the wall or take down the wall altogether. According to Freeman’s statement, the students refused to engage in censorship and therefore felt forced to take down the entire wall: 

We decided if we were not really free to exercise our freedom of speech, then there was no point in having a free speech wall. So we removed the paper, and then disassembled the wall, packed it up and left. 

Later that day, as reported by SHSU student newspaper The Houstonian, University Police Department Deputy Chief James Fitch stated that because Kirk was "offended by the use of the profanity," its use "qualified it as disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor." 

FIRE’s letter explained why these events violated the students’ First Amendment rights:

Let us be clear: While the content in question—various uses of an expletive to make political and other points—might offend members of the campus community, it is unquestionably protected expression under the First Amendment. The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or "offensive." The Supreme Court stated in Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 414 (1989) that "[i]f there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable." Similarly, the Court wrote in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973) that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’" 

As a public university, SHSU cannot lawfully ban "four-letter words," no matter how offensive some may find them. The landmark Supreme Court case Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971) made clear that the First Amendment protects shocking or offensive expression, including the use of expletives in the communication of core political speech. In Cohen, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words "Fuck the Draft" in a county courthouse. The Court held that the message on Cohen’s jacket, however vulgar, was protected speech, writing that "one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric." Similarly, in Papish, the Court determined that a student newspaper article entitled "Motherfucker Acquitted" was constitutionally protected speech. Indeed, the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution protects many kinds of expression arguably much more offensive than what was printed on the free speech wall. 

Further, editorial comments about political figures such as President Obama or President Bush—even when they include "offensive" language—are a mainstay of America’s long tradition of impassioned political dialogue. In New York Times Cov. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1964), the Supreme Court made clear that honoring the First Amendment requires that "[d]ebate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and … may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." Similarly, in Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378 (1987), the Court found that the First Amendment protected a deputy county constable’s expressed hope that if another attempt were to be made on President Reagan’s life, that it be successful. If such a statement constitutes protected speech, surely, then, the speech at issue on SHSU’s campus does as well. 

No campus that claims to take seriously the free speech rights of students may censor them or their display because others on campus felt offended by fully protected speech. The fact that a single professor chose to respond with vandalism does not cause the speech to be unprotected as either "fighting words" or "disorderly conduct." Such a standard would enact an impermissible "heckler’s veto" on SHSU’s campus, in which all a person need do to silence someone else’s speech is to act destructively or violently. The faculty vandal committed an offense, and the police officer should have acted to protect the First Amendment rights of SHSU’s own students, not to make unconstitutional demands because of one unreasonable person’s act. 

We have asked President Gibson to respond immediately because students and others are likely to want to continue protesting against the social media policy using their own choice of language. The police and vandals must not be permitted to thwart the exercise of free speech by SHSU’s students.

TAKE ACTION: Demand SHSU respect free speech on campus by writing to President Gibson today.  

Schools: Sam Houston State University Cases: Sam Houston State University: Faculty Member Takes Box Cutter to Students’ Free Speech Wall; Police Threaten Students with Misdemeanor