Vigilante Censorship Alive and Well in Kentucky

By on April 14, 2006

After nearly five years of dealing with all the terrible and often absurd abuses of free speech in higher education, I am a hard person to shock, but hats off to professor Sally Jacobsen of Northern Kentucky University (NKU) for showing me the most perverted inversion of the concept of free speech I have seen in a long time.

Jacobsen, a professor at NKU, invited students in one of her classes to “to express their freedom-of-speech rights to destroy [an anti-abortion] display if they wished to.” The anti-abortion display had been erected by an NKU student group with permission from university officials. You can see a picture of her apparently actually helping destroy the display (which was a field of approximately 400 tiny crosses) in The Northerner On Line.

George Orwell’s name is bandied about a lot these days, but cases like this demonstrate why: a university professor is trying to claim destruction of others’ property and expression equals free speech? That’s madness.

When asked about the incident, Jacobsen said “Any violence perpetrated against that silly display was minor compared to how I felt when I saw it. Some of my students felt the same way, just outraged.”

Wow. So Jacobsen is so compassionate and tolerant that she feels she has the right to destroy expression that disagrees with her world view? I am so tired of college administrators, faculty, and students excusing their attempts to silence opinions they dislike or disagree with by treating their censorship as a necessary part of a decent university society. This turns the ideal of individual freedom on its head and transmogrifies it into a mandate for enforced conformity.

This case, so far, is all too similar to another truly shocking case: that of student playwright Chris Lee at Washington State University. In that case, administrators at Washington State actually organized and paid for hecklers to attend Lee’s satirical play Passion of the Musical. The hecklers repeatedly disrupted the musical through shouts and threats of violence. Astoundingly, Washington State’s president later defended the hecklers’ behavior as a “responsible” exercise of free speech. After months of public criticism from FIRE and the media the WSU president seems to have backed off of his outrageous claim. Thankfully, NKU president James Votruba does not appear to need a lesson from FIRE about what is free speech and what is condoning violent repression of speech:

“Freedom-of-speech rights end where you infringe on someone else’s freedom of speech,” Votruba said. “I don’t buy the claim that this is an act of freedom of speech, to destroy property.”

Votruba also told the Cincinnati Post that Professor Jacobsen and those involved could face disciplinary action and even criminal prosecution. “In my mind, this is a serious violation of a faculty member’s responsibilities and undermines what a university is established to do,” Votruba said. “If people are occasionally offended by points of view on a campus, that’s what a university is all about.”

I commend Votruba for his clear thinking on this—which is something I have learned to never take for granted with college presidents. No matter how strongly you disagree with the other side of the debate—whether the debate be over abortion, the war, or (it is strange to write this but…) cartoons—you do not have the right to shut them up. It looks like NKU will be doing the right thing in this case, thanks to a president who has thus far shown himself to understand free speech. Therefore, it does not look like FIRE will have to be involved, but we remain ever vigilant against crude attempts to shut down campus dialogue for all but one side of an argument.

Schools: Northern Kentucky University