This Month in FIRE History: IUSB and Double Standards for Student Speech

By September 18, 2008

In our nearly ten-year history, FIRE has seen many absurd cases in which students have been punished for exercising their First Amendment rights.

One of our more interesting cases was finally resolved last September, when Indiana UniversitySouth Bend overturned its punishment of student reporter Robert Francis, whose only offense was asking questions of an actress in the cast of The Vagina Monologues. The play, which includes a great deal of graphic language and sexual content, is dedicated to the “celebration of female sexuality,” but Francis’s questions in a similar vein were deemed “lewd, indecent or obscene.” Francis got in trouble when members of the group that had put on the performance, the V-Club, saw an advance copy of Francis’s article, disapproved of it, pressured the student newspaper not to run the article, and then manufactured a complaint against Francis that led to his punishment.

As Francis said, “taken out of context, [these questions may seem] lewd, but we were talking about ‘The Vagina Monologues’ and standing two feet from a table where members of the club were selling vagina-shaped chocolate lollipops.”

By way of punishment, Francis was required to participate in a mandatory “one-way listening session” in which he would be forbidden to speak but required to listen to his accusers explain how they felt degraded by his interview. He was also required to undergo a psychological “processing session” at the Student Counseling Center and to follow any instructions that the center’s director required. In addition, he was required to view and write a response paper about a film on the topic of sensitivity.

Francis asked FIRE for help in August 2007, and we responded with a letter to IUSB Chancellor Una Mae Reck. Our letter highlighted the fact that IUSB is a public school where Francis’s journalism was protected by the First Amendment. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff stated, “Decades of Supreme Court decisions protect students’ rights to engage in provocative and ‘offensive’ expression. The same standards that protect students’ rights to perform a play like ‘The Vagina Monologues’ also protect Francis’s right to discuss that play.”

IUSB’s response, a year ago this week, acknowledged that administrators could not enforce the punishments that they had attempted to inflict upon Francis. Despite admitting that Francis was entirely in the clear, however, IUSB refused to remove the records of this case from Francis’s student file. Francis should not have to suffer further injustice because of a complaint that was improper from the start. If IUSB wants to keep records of this matter, they should be kept somewhere else.

The case inspired the Chief Justice of IUSB’s Student Government Association, Chuck Norton, to focus much of his blog around students’ rights, which has been helpful in exposing the details of cases such as that of Keith John Sampson at Indiana UniversityPurdue University Indianapolisa case in which a student-employee was found guilty of racial harassment simply for reading a book.

These cases also illustrate a double standard that is all too common at U.S. colleges and universities: Speech that university administrators like is protected, while speech that they dislike is punished. Other examples of this double standard over the past year include cases at Colorado College, where male students were sanctioned for their parody of a feminist publication, and Harvard University, where two student groups were told they could not use the name “Barely Legal” for a dance party in a space that has been well-known over the years for racy, sex-themed events such as “S&M Bingo” and “Erotica Night.”

Schools: Indiana University South Bend Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis Colorado College Cases: Colorado College: Students Found Guilty for Satirical Flyer Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis: Student Employee Found Guilty of ‘Racial Harassment’ for Reading a Book Indiana University South Bend: Student Sanctioned for ‘Vagina Monologues’ Interview