SVSU defends decision to prohibit profanity-bearing posters

December 23, 2012

A Saginaw Valley State University student whose profanity-laced posters were not allowed to be posted on campus bulletin boards is claiming the school is violating his First Amendment rights.

Daniel Chapman, who is involved in student government at SVSU, has attempted to display posters that use profanity to protest a new policy at the university that requires all postings to meet the approval of the Student Life Office. The policy states that postings must be in good taste, free from profanity, nudity or sexually suggestive graphics/phrasing and not include discriminatory or derogatory statements or graphics.

Chapman, citing a 1971 Supreme Court case, maintains he is being unlawfully censored and has enlisted the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) to make his case.

“SVSU had the legal obligation to approve them (the posters) under Cohen vs. California and other Supreme Court precedents,” said Robert Shibley, FIRE senior vice president. “SVSU is an agent of the government and does not have the option of ignoring the First Amendment.”

SVSU officials say they are within their rights to reject Chapman’s posters.

“We reserve the right to exercise control of what is posted on university-owned bulletin boards, much as reserve the right to control what appears on the university-owned website,” said J.J. Boehm, SVSU spokesman.

Chapman, through FIRE, said he explained in an e-mail to an SVSU administrator that he purposely chose one of the profanity-containing messages as a poster message to mimic the 1971 Cohen vs. California Supreme Court case. The court overturned a disturbing the peace conviction of 19-year-old Paul Cohen, who had been arrested for wearing a jacket with profanity on it to the Los Angeles County Courthouse.

Boehm and other SVSU officials say Chapman picked the wrong forum for his political messages.

“University-owned bulletin boards were never intended to be a free speech forum,” Boehm said. “There are all kinds of other free speech forums on campus, and students and others regularly take advantage of these ample opportunities to express themselves.”

For those who wonder why a college student can’t come up with a more creative, less offensive way to express his views, Shibley said, “A common argument when dealing with the censorship of ‘swear words’ is that those using them should have been able to find another way to express themselves. Yet in some cases people may believe that the only way to communicate the intensity of their feelings is to use such words.”

Typical postings on the bulletin boards would include pamphlets for upcoming events, information on employers coming to SVSU and announcement of student organization meetings, Boehm said.

“We believe our actions are constitutional and sensible,” said Boehm.

Schools: Saginaw Valley State University Cases: Saginaw Valley State University: Administration Rejects Flyers Protesting Unconstitutional Posting Policy