UMass Lowell: Be Careful How You Address Controversial Speech

By May 14, 2012

Yet another joke issue of a college student publication has encountered controversy on campus for being intentionally offensive in order to comment on a variety of issues. The good news is that the dean of students at University of Massachusetts Lowell, Larry Siegel, has taken punishment of the independent student newspaper, the Connector, off of the table. The Lowell Sun reports

Siegel said the university "holds in high regard the freedom of speech" and so "in no way are we going to censor the student paper," which is run independently.

"But you can’t let your own amusement under the guise of a once-a-year-joke go to this level of disrespect," Siegel said, adding that based on what happened this year, there would be discussions with the newspaper’s editors and dismayed student leaders on how to prevent something like this from happening again.

"They can’t let their egos run rampant," he said. "There’s a responsibility here. And this is immature, careless and callous.

"Words are very powerful," he added. "And these kind of public words are ones you are going to be accountable to."

What did the paper print? Here’s how the Lowell Sun described it:

Rife with profanity, it features a grotesque string of ribald tweets supposedly ripped from the actual Twitterverse, jokey items about gays, immigrants and race, a guide to the best brands of college booze, as well as an entire article filled with the excessive repetition of a derogatory term for a woman’s anatomy, and many other words and phrases that cannot be reprinted here.

This material may be quite unappealing to many, but it’s important that UMass Lowell be careful not to suggest that actual discipline is possible in order to "prevent" future instances of offensive expression. As a public university bound by the First Amendment, UMass Lowell may not use its disciplinary system to force students to meet with the dean in order to press them to stop exercising their freedom of speech. In a free society, a productive remedy for what is perceived as "bad" speech is social pressure via argument and more speech, which in this case has already led the Connector‘s Editor-in-Chief to publicly apologize. Using the coercive power of government to silence people who say crude or unpopular things is a cure that’s worse than the disease.

So far it seems that UMass Lowell is getting it right. The Boston Globe reports:

"We will be spending a lot of time addressing this, but it will be through education and dialogue with all of our student leaders," Siegel said. "I’m sure we will take a look at the protocol, certainly for this issue, in the future. They probably have 50 years of tradition behind them and, as egregious as this is, I don’t believe that the appropriate action is to restrict the publication or administratively end it."

Indeed, such action by a public university would be both inappropriate and unlawful. If, at the end of the day, the Connector chooses not to change its protocols, that’s fully within the rights of an independent student newspaper. I hope that the Connector‘s apology was voluntary, not coerced, and that UMass Lowell acts carefully as it determines how to address various concerns about the controversial content of the joke issue.

Schools: University of Massachusetts at Lowell