Silverglate Defends Parody on Campus in ‘The Phoenix’

By on May 17, 2007

Today’s edition of The Phoenix features a prominent article by FIRE co-founder Harvey Silver and Jan Wolfe detailing the recent censorship of satirical student newspapers at Tufts and Brandeis.

At Tufts, as we’ve reported, The Primary Source offended campus sensibilities by publishing two satirical articles—a Christmas carol parody targeting race-based admissions and a mock ad criticizing Tufts’ “Islamic Awareness Week.” Tufts dispensed with First Amendment protections of parody—what Silverglate tags an “inherently risky art form”—and found the independent student paper guilty of “harassment” and “creating a hostile environment.”

At Brandeis, the humor magazine Gravity printed a fake ad for “BlackJerry,” an African-American man that would perform all the tasks of a Blackberry device. Silverglate explains that the intention here was to comment “on the racist attitudes of white CEOs, meant to show how white privilege—which is rooted in the original Constitution’s three-fifths-of-a-person formula for counting America’s slave population—exists in our society.” Assuming that the fake ad endorsed rather than parodied the attitudes it contained, the Brandeis Student Union called for a laundry list of sanctions against Gravity, including the resignation its staff. Gravity acceded, and all but one staff member has resigned.

Reflecting on these two scenarios, Silverglate writes,

Are today’s college students thinner-skinned than were previous generations? That may be the sad truth emerging from Tufts and Brandeis Universities, where campus ideologues and their faculty enablers are purging student publications that used parody to comment on religious and race-relations issues. The real danger, of course, is not that today’s students are emotionally frail, but that they are willing to sacrifice freedom of speech and academic freedom to protect themselves from mere offense, never mind intellectual challenges.

Both Tufts and Brandeis have had their fair share of free speech debacles in recent years, but, as Silverglate explains, the tide is turning in a dismal direction:

The alarming difference between those past incidents of campus censorship and what happened to the Primary Source and Gravity is that last week’s purges were almost entirely student-engineered. This past week’s disciplinary proceedings demonstrate that the students, far from protesting encroachments on their academic freedom and free-speech rights as they have in the past, are now enabling their own repression. The Tufts and Brandeis administrations, for a number of years engaged in a war with students’ fighting for their freedom, have finally prevailed. The students might now proudly boast, to quote the late Walt Kelly’s Pogo comic strip popular with an earlier generation of students, “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”

Schools: Brandeis University Tufts University Cases: Tufts University: Conservative Student Journal Found Guilty of Harassment