Stetson shuts its mind to press freedom

December 23, 2005

Here is the quote I was greeted with after logging onto Stetson University’s Web site earlier this week:
The open exchange of ideas creates a foundation for success.
Very inspiring.
And, at the moment, a little ironic.
Stetson is getting a well-deserved earful from a national free-speech organization that accuses the school of repressing the very exchange of ideas it purports to value.
The dust-up began with the launch of a conservative student-run publication called Common Sense, whose inaugural issue this fall offended the administration’s sensibilities.
For starters, the independent publication used Stetson’s logo.
Moreover, according to a memo written by a school vice president, “there are elements of the publication which lack sensitivity to and respect for the diversity and inclusiveness of the Stetson Community.”
How? By printing a dumb Jay Leno gag, to wit: “According to a poll in USA Today, 40 percent of Mexicans say they would move to the U.S. if they had the chance. The other 60 percent are already here.”
Not very funny, like most of Leno’s material. But also harmless. (Memo to the consistency cops: There is a big difference between a bad joke printed in a student newspaper and a racial slur spoken in City Hall by a city employee during a city function, OK?)
University officials also were distressed at the publication of an image showing a rainbow flag hanging in a dorm-room window, on which Common Sense editors superimposed a question mark.
Administrators somehow interpreted this as targeting. Seems more baffling to me than anything.
Nevertheless, Stetson forbade Common Sense editors from distributing their publication on or off campus until they agreed to behave.
Remember, this is the same university whose over-the-top response to a tasteless April Fool’s Day edition of the student newspaper was to fire the staff and shut the paper down.
As an institution, Stetson has a lot of great things going for it. But when it comes to encouraging a free and vigorous press, the school has moments of tone deafness.
Enter the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which goes by the catchy acronym FIRE.
This is a group whose board of editors includes Alan Dershowitz and Edwin Meese.
Talk about diversity.
FIRE fired off a letter to Stetson President Doug Lee, writing, “Stetson’s attempt to quash unpopular or potentially offensive speech is a direct attack on freedom of the student press and shows a lack of respect for students’ freedom of expression.”
The problem is one that FIRE frequently encounters: colleges and universities imposing speech and conduct codes designed to make sure no one’s feelings get hurt.
And yet, those good intentions produce disturbing results, like banning publications because of immigration jokes about Mexicans, or maybe drinking jokes about Irishmen, like me.
Stetson has deigned to let Common Sense resume distribution of its second edition, but only after prior review of the content.
But come on, the bar for banning distribution should have been a few miles higher than a silly crack on late-night TV or some odd punctuation.
Especially at a school that claims to foster an open exchange of ideas.
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Schools: Stetson University Cases: Stetson University: Viewpoint-Based Censorship of Student Magazine