Unfunny: Capitulation, Resignations as Brandeis Humor Mag Folds under Pressure

By May 14, 2007

A controversy arose recently at Brandeis University involving Gravity, a student-run humor magazine entering its seventeenth year on campus. Gravity, known for articles with titles like “Ewok Joins NFL, Dies in Tragic Booze Cruise Incident” and “God is Dead; Tooth Fairy Still Up In the Air,” became the subject of heated debate on campus after the magazine’s spring issue included a satirical advertisement for a “BlackJerry”—that is, an African-American man named Jerry advertised as a “product” to be purchased in lieu of a wireless device like a BlackBerry. The fake ad’s copy—a testimonial from a white CEO named “Chris Washington”—states that “BlackJerry” can be bought for “3/5 the cost of a BlackBerry,” a reference to the notorious compromise between Northern and Southern states at the 1787 Constitutional Convention that deemed slaves three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining state populations. The ad even asks readers to visit the company on the web at www.wesellpeoplemarketedaswirelessdevices.com. In sum, a nervy joke about race, but nothing that would be out of place on Saturday Night Live or Chappelle’s Show—and as always, one doesn’t have to read it if one doesn’t want to.

But regardless of intent, attempts at humor that stray outside of innocuous (and boring) “knock-knock” territory inevitably provoke myriad responses. Some readers will find the edgy racial humor, and the imputed parallels between today’s white CEOs and the white slaveowners who signed the Constitution, to be incisive and funny. Others will be repulsed and offended by making a joke of slavery, however satirical the intent. Some will feel vaguely uneasy and stop reading the magazine, and some will turn the page without a second thought. All of these responses are perfectly acceptable: in a liberal democracy like our own, individuals have the right to make choices about what they read.

In our democratic society, however, one response should always be unacceptable: censorship. Unfortunately, at Brandeis, that’s exactly what happened next.

Infuriated students offended by the fake ad reacted quickly, holding a forum to discuss the incident, organizing a Facebook group (“We Do NOT Tolerate Hate Speech on the Brandeis Campus”), and demanding action from the school’s Student Union. Soon thereafter, the Student Union Senate passed a near-unanimous resolution condemning the article in the strongest terms possible and insisting on further action.

Specifically, in response to the “overtly racist, sexist, and generally offensive articles, statements, and images published in the Spring Issue of Gravity Magazine,” and because the publication of this joke had caused “members of our community to feel ‘unsafe,’ ‘powerless,’ ‘unsupported,’ ‘harassed,’ and ‘threatened;’” the Student Union resolved to:

  • Demand “a public apology issued by the editors of Gravity Magazine to the university for the offensive material published in their latest issue”
  • Demand “the resignation of all editors of Gravity Magazine and the authors of the offending pieces”
  • Demand the initiation of a “judicial investigation regarding violation of Section 2.1 and 2.6 of the Rights and Responsibilities” outlined in Brandeis’ student handbook, forbidding “behavior that intimidates, threatens, harasses, [or] physically harms”
  • Discuss “de-chartering Gravity Magazine at the next Senate meeting”
  • Advocate for mandatory “diversity training for Orientation Leaders, new students, campus publications, and other media”
  • Create “displays to help educate the student body about the horribly offensive comments and by exploring further options to continue this dialogue in the Fall”

That’s a lot of demands, so let’s review quickly. In response to a joke published in a humor magazine, Brandeis’ student government demanded a public apology, the resignation of the magazine’s editors and staff, an investigation into harassment charges, mandatory diversity training, and the magazine’s dissolution. All because of a joke intended to mock racial exploitation. You have to hand it to Brandeis’ Student Senators: when they decide to censor, they really censor. Despite the fact that an unscientific poll run by Brandeis’ student paper The Justice indicated that a (silent) majority of students thought no action was necessary and people were overreacting, one (arguably lame and/or insensitive) joke threatened to bring Gravity down in a hurry.

But one would hope that at a school whose Mission Statement boasts about “renew[ing] the American heritage of…freedom of expression” that cooler heads would prevail; that, after the initial anger had passed, students would realize that the answer to “bad” speech is more speech. After all, former Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, the school’s namesake, had often invoked this exact principle in his opinions for our nation’s highest court. For ready example, in Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375-76 (1927), Justice Brandeis describes, with his usual clarity and eloquence, the appropriate response to “dangerous” speech:

Those who won our independence believed… that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine…

They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones.

Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly… To justify suppression of free speech there must be reasonable ground to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced… [N]o danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence. Only an emergency can justify repression.

(Emphasis added.)

In highlighting with precision the dangers of repressing speech to avert imagined injury, Justice Brandeis’ observations are as true now as they were in 1927. Judged against Brandeis’ standards, the “injury” suffered by offended students in reading what they deemed to be a tasteless joke in a humor magazine is insignificant indeed, and no justification whatsoever for censorship.

But what if, failing to heed Justice Brandeis’ counsel, the Student Union Senate pressed forward with censorship, as it in fact did? Surely then the editors of Gravity would realize they were being unjustly censored for a joke gone awry, that the allegations of “harassment” were groundless. Indeed, whatever the merits (or lack thereof) of the joke, surely Gravity’s editors would now realize that the principles of free expression were in play, and that a stand was required.

Unfortunately, they did not. Instead, the editors of Gravity magazine caved. In a letter to the Student Union Senate—sent just one day after they had contacted FIRE for help—the editors of Gravity announced their resignation and the cancellation of the Fall issue of Gravity, writing:

We at Gravity Magazine are alarmed and saddened by the pain our latest issue caused. We in no way intended to make anyone feel denigrated, marginalized, or attacked, and we would like to express our deepest sympathies to anyone who felt targeted by the content in our magazine. Our failure to properly screen certain material is, in our opinion, the result of an insufficient review process. It is clear that certain changes need to be made in the way we edit content, and towards this end the editors of this past issue hereby resign our positions. There will not be a Fall ’07 issue of Gravity; we will be using the coming semester to reform our publication and implement a more effective editorial hierarchy. In addition, we will be working with the Media Board, BBSO, ICC, and all other interested clubs to encourage a greater understanding of race issues and discrimination on campus…

While we regret the circumstances that have inspired this dialogue, we are nonetheless enthused by the open-mindedness and honesty presented by the participants thus far.

In one sense, it’s hard to blame the Gravity editors. The pressure on them was enormous, and they were trying to protect themselves. They shouldn’t have been forced to capitulate in the first place.

That said, it’s a shame they did. In their letter to the Student Union, the editors called the incident an “unprecedented opportunity,” a “teachable moment that we do not intend to let go to waste.” But what exactly have Brandeis students been taught? An entire student body has now witnessed the power and seductive allure of censorship, receiving a comprehensive (and likely unforgettable) lesson on how best to respond to speech with one disagrees: by repressing it wholesale. In a flash, Brandeis students learned that if one is offended by speech, the answer is not to ignore the speaker in question, or even to engage him or her in debate. Rather, the best response possible is to shut him or her up by appealing to government censors. Is this the lesson we want our future leaders and citizens learning? Is this the education to which Justice Brandeis would want his name attached?

It’s important to note, as well, that there’s a sizable difference between a coerced apology and a voluntary one. If open debate and discussion (i.e., more speech)—and not the threat of censorship and penalty—leads one side to voluntarily apologize, then Justice Brandeis’ hope for “good counsels” has been fulfilled, and the marketplace of ideas has done its work. Freedom of speech is necessarily tempered by the normative assumption that when, through debate and dialogue, one recognizes the error of one’s ways, one will make appropriate changes. Such growth is a valuable and unique product of freedom of expression, and a crucial element of public life in a democratic society. In this case, then, had the student government (not the student body, remember, but the student government) voiced their concerns without simultaneously (a) demanding the magazine’s immediate demise and (b) demanding a judicial investigation into “harassment” charges, perhaps Gravity’s apology would have meant something substantive. Instead, it cannot help but appear as little more than outright capitulation to a threat. It is difficult to have a reasoned debate when one party is pointing the proverbial gun at the other’s head. Given the circumstances surrounding their apology and resignation, it is equally difficult to imagine Gravity’s actions as anything other than coerced.

Here at FIRE, we get a real sense of satisfaction from helping students who are being unfairly persecuted by faculty, administrators, or peers because of the content of their speech. While of course we defend the rights of faculty, there is something uniquely gratifying about ensuring that students can exercise their freedom of expression on campus. Because of their comparatively limited life experience, students can be particularly susceptible to aggressive attacks upon their right to freedom of expression, and the quickest to recant under pressure from above. Such responses are understandable, arising out of the obvious fear that taking a principled stand may cost the student a diploma, a job, and a shot at the life they had imagined for themselves. When confronted with a choice between personal stability or fighting for the right to speak their mind, many students choose the former.

But however understandable, watching students back down when confronted about their speech—whether a contrarian political viewpoint, a minority religious belief, or even just a joke some find unfunny—can also be incredibly discouraging. When students fold in the face of public pressure—even when they feel they have done nothing wrong—they only strengthen the belief of those doing the silencing that censorship was justified and necessary.

The bottom line is that FIRE can only help students who want to be helped. We can only fight for students who want to win, who believe in the essential value and importance of freedom of expression in a modern liberal education.

Schools: Brandeis University