Southwest Missouri State University Continues to Defy the First Amendment

June 16, 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…” 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.


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