Southwest Missouri State University Continues to Defy the First Amendment

By April 23, 2004

SPRINGFIELD, MO—Last month, the Foundation for Individual
Rights in Education (FIRE) publicly opposed Southwest Missouri State
University’s (SMSU’s) investigation of the student editor and faculty
advisor of its student newspaper, The Standard,
after it printed an editorial cartoon that some Native American
students found “offensive.” In response, SMSU claims that its
procedures respect free speech and federal law. In fact, SMSU has
refused to end the chilling of protected free expression in its campus
paper and has also refused to rule out further punishment of those who
merely stood up for First Amendment rights.

“SMSU is a place where constitutionally protected expression, if it offends
anyone, leads not only to long and chilling investigations, but to possible
punishment that hangs over your head indefinitely,” said Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s
director of legal and public advocacy. “SMSU’s refusal to end its investigation
of its campus press and to rule out the punishment of a faculty member for defending
basic rights of free speech is arrogant, absurd, and a betrayal of both the
Constitution and the spirit of a free society.”

The innocuous cartoon depicts two Native Americans presenting a female Pilgrim
with a gift of canned corn at “The 2nd Thanksgiving.” The Pilgrim responds,
“Gladys, the Indians are here and it looks like they brought corn…Again…” See
the cartoon to the right. This prompted a campus Native American group to file
a discrimination complaint with the campus Office of Equal Opportunity (OEO)
against the newspaper, its editor-in-chief, Mandy Phillips, and its faculty
advisor, Professor Wanda Brandon. FIRE wrote to SMSU on March 16, asking that
it end immediately its investigation and halt its assault on the First Amendment.
Read FIRE’s original press release here.

SMSU’s response to FIRE implied that it reserved the right to punish
Brandon as a faculty member for her defense of the student newspaper’s
rights. FIRE then twice asked SMSU for assurance that it would live up
to its constitutional obligations by ending the OEO’s intervention and
ruling out any possibility of punishment for this incident. SMSU
General Counsel John Black wrote that it was “impossible” to rule out
punishment of Professor Brandon for this incident and “impossible” to
rule out further campus judicial hearings against the campus newspaper
and its editor.

FIRE’s Lukianoff noted, “It is outrageous that SMSU will not rule
out punishment of Brandon for refusing to participate in an
investigation of protected speech. It is still more outrageous because
even the newspaper’s agreement with the university rules out faculty
interference with the paper’s content. FIRE expects SMSU to honor its
obligations under the Bill of Rights and to end the persecution of
Brandon and the campus press.”

SMSU sent a form email response, signed by General Counsel Black, to
its many critics, claiming that federal law requires investigation of
any charge of “discrimination,” but the publication of unquestionably
protected speech is neither discrimination nor a legitimate basis for
ignoring the First Amendment. “If someone charged a person with
‘discrimination’ for going to church,” Lukianoff observed, “there is no
investigation, because the behavior is clearly constitutionally
protected freedom of religion. In this case, publication of a cartoon
is fully constitutionally protected freedom of the press. There is
nothing to investigate. Indeed, SMSU’s real obligation is to protect
such freedom.”

SMSU claims that no one, including Professor Brandon, has been
investigated or threatened with punishment. That is false. Evidence in
FIRE’s possession shows that Brandon was summoned by the OEO, that she
was instructed to bring various materials with her, and that according
to SMSU policies, such a step is taken only after a complaint is being
formally addressed. Further, according to Standard

editor Phillips, the OEO contacted the paper and warned it not to write
a story on the complaint, citing OEO confidentiality provisions. “A
newspaper,” Lukianoff noted, “could not even report of its own
muzzling.”

Student Newspapers Censored Across the Nation

Sadly, the persecution of SMSU’s Standard
is not an isolated event. Several universities recently have attempted
to censor newspapers that printed “April Fool’s Day” editions. At
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the April Fool’s issue of The Tartan
led the university to threaten campus journalists with punishment and
to establish a “content review board” for future issues. At the
University of Nebraska-Omaha, Chancellor Nancy Belck has said that she
would “not tolerate” an April Fool’s issue of student newspaper The Gateway
called “The Ghettoway,” and the newspaper staff agreed to sensitivity
training. At the University of Scranton, the faculty and student
publications board fired the student editor of The Aquinas
and confiscated thousands of copies of a satirical April Fool’s
edition, changed the locks on the newspaper’s offices, and suspended
the publication.

Lukianoff noted, “Freedom of the press is essential to campuses as a
rich marketplaces of ideas. The April Fool’s victims appear to be humor
and liberty.”

FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights
and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public
intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on
behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression,
academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and
universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at SMSU and on
campuses across America can be viewed at www.thefire.org.

CONTACTS:
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; greg@thefire.org
Dr. John Keiser, President, SMSU: 417-836-8500; jhk021f@smsu.edu
John F. Black, General Counsel, SMSU: 417-836-8507; jfb966t@smsu.edu