Thomas Jefferson Center Awards “Muzzles” to Censors at Catawba Valley, Sam Houston State

By on April 12, 2012

Every year since 1992, the good folks at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression award their annual "Jefferson Muzzles" to recognize those across the nation "who in the preceding year committed some of the more egregious or ridiculous affronts to the First Amendment right of free speech." And just about every year, a Muzzle or two ends up being awarded to someone on a college campus. Surprised? Neither are we! 

This year, two schools earned well-deserved Muzzles by stifling student speech in shocking ways. Torch readers will remember that FIRE intervened in both cases. 

First, the Thomas Jefferson Center awarded Catawba Valley Community College administrators a Muzzle for banning student Marc Bechtol from campus. His offense? Criticizing the college’s cozy relationship with a financial services provider on Facebook. The Thomas Jefferson Center explains

Like most colleges, Catawba Valley Community College (CVCC) requires students to have a school identification card. Starting in 2011, CVCC added a debit function to the student IDs, partnering with Mastercard and financial services company Higher One to allow students to receive tuition refunds and grant transfers with the cards. Many schools across the country have implemented similar plans, raising concerns about requiring students to use a debit card that can have fees associated with it. But CVCC is unique in its response to one student’s criticism of the system.

CVCC student Marc Bechtol began a public campaign against the school’s decision to share students’ personal information with Higher One. He also noted CVCC and Higher One’s aggressive marketing campaign; students were told that they could receive refunds and grants faster using the card, and then were targeted by credit card companies after they had activated their accounts. Bechtol posted the following message to the college’s Facebook account: "I think we should register CVCCs’ address with every porn site known to man. Anyone know any good viruses to send them? OK, maybe that would be a slight overreaction."

Three days after the posting, Bechtol was summoned from his classroom by an administration official. Upon arriving in the administrator’s office, Bechtol found a sheriff’s deputy waiting for him. The administrator informed Bechtol he was to leave campus immediately. He was later informed he had been suspended for three semesters.

Luckily, FIRE’s intervention helped Bechtol, but CVCC refused to admit error and problematic policies remain: 

In early October 2011, Bechtol’s suspension was dropped after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education intervened on his behalf. But Bechtol was still required to notify college authorities before using school computers, and the school maintains its position that the Facebook comments violated school policy. Further, CVCC has not clarified the policy under which Bechtol was suspended. Free speech advocates warn that the policy is likely to chill student expression online, even when students intend to voice legitimate criticisms of the school or its administration.

Of course, we couldn’t agree more with this selection. Congratulations, CVCC!

Next, Sam Houston State University professor Joe Kirk and the university’s police department share a 2012 Muzzle for taking a box cutter to campus free speech—literally. Here’s the Thomas Jefferson Center’s explanation of this shocking reaction: 

In September 2011, four student organizations at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) obtained permission from the administration to construct a temporary "free speech wall"  made of wooden boards covered with white parchment paper, on which the student body was invited to write "whatever they wanted." Students wrote a variety of messages, including "Legal Weed," "My boyfriend is a liar!" and "If you make less than $200,000, Republicans don’t care about you."

Upon seeing "Fuck Obama" written on the free speech wall, SHSU professor Joe Kirk contacted the four sponsoring student organizations and requested that they remove or cover the crude insult to the President. Professor Kirk informed the student organizers that if they failed to do so, he would remove it himself. When the students refused, Professor Kirk used a box cutter to cut the word "Fuck" from the posting. He did not remove the offensive word from any other part of the free speech wall, despite the fact that it appeared at approximately 100 different locations on the wall in varying contexts.  He also did not remove any other phrases utilizing expletives.

After approaching an SHSU administrator about the problem and obtaining the administrator’s advice, the student organizers reported the incident to the SHSU University Police. However, rather than addressing Professor Kirk’s act of vandalism, the University Police demanded that the student organizers either remove all expletives or completely disassemble the wall. The University Police added that if the students failed to do so, those using profanity could be charged with disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, under the University’s Code of Student Conduct provision prohibiting the use of "abusive, indecent, profane or vulgar language." When asked by the students for clarification, an officer explained it was okay to use profanity "until someone got offended." Understanding that the very purpose of the wall would be defeated if they were to censor what was written upon it, the students decided to disassemble and remove the free speech wall.

Without question, both Kirk and the Sam Houston State University police richly deserve this Muzzle. Congratulations! 

The Thomas Jefferson Center awards Muzzles annually in honor of Thomas Jefferson’s April 13 birthday. Past recipients of this dubious distinction include such celebrated collegiate censors as the following schools, each a FIRE case: Past recipients of this dubious distinction include such celebrated collegiate censors as the following schools, each a FIRE case:  

  • New Jersey’s William Paterson University, for charging student-employee Jihad Daniel with sexual harassment for expressing his religious views in a private email (2006); 
  • Valdosta State University, for expelling student Hayden Barnes for peacefully protesting the planned construction of parking garages on campus (2008); 
  • Brandeis University, for finding Professor Donald Hindley guilty of "racial harassment" for critiquing the use of the term "wetback" in the course of a classroom discussion (2008); 
  • Tarrant County College and Lone Star College, for censoring gun-related student speech (2009);
  • Administrators at California’s Southwestern College, for banning faculty from campus after they strayed from the university’s tiny "free speech patio" when protesting the college’s budget cuts (2010); 
  • Hamilton College, for requiring male freshmen to attend a mandatory, coercive thought reform program and admit to blame for campus violence solely as a function of their gender and beliefs (2011).

Again, FIRE congratulates Sam Houston State University and Catawba Valley Community College for the well-deserved "honor." It’s hard work to violate the First Amendment in such egregious ways, but somehow our nation’s colleges continue to surprise and disappoint us every year. 

Schools: Catawba Valley Community College Sam Houston State University Cases: Catawba Valley Community College: Student Banned from Campus after Protesting College’s Deal with Debit Card Company on Facebook Sam Houston State University: Faculty Member Takes Box Cutter to Students’ Free Speech Wall; Police Threaten Students with Misdemeanor