A Misguided Call for Censorship in University of Georgia Student Newspaper

November 16, 2010

At FIRE, we are very concerned about the increasingly large number of college students who believe it’s OK or even commendable to censor certain forms of speech. This phenomenon is widespread enough that Greg coined a phrase for it: “unlearning liberty.” Samantha Shelton, one such student who has apparently unlearned liberty, gives us yet another reason for concern in her column yesterday for the University of Georgia’s independent newspaper The Red & Black.

Shelton calls for censorship of “extremist Christian” groups like the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), a pro-life organization which recently erected a display on campus featuring pictures of aborted fetuses. Shelton was revolted by the display and the brochures that the group handed out, but she was more upset because she believed that CBR’s display broke campus rules:

It wasn’t CBR’s brochures that bothered me, or their gigantic displayrather, the fact that they got away with breaking the rules.

The rules Shelton is referring to are found in the University of Georgia Code of Conduct, and she’s all too happy to read relatively innocuous regulations as broadly as possible to further her censorship crusade. Her first complaint is:

The display infringed upon the rights, privacy, or privileges (University Code of Conduct, Art. V, Sec. 2) of women who have exercised their right to terminate their pregnancy.

Pictures of aborted fetuses, however shocking, do not infringe upon “…the rights, privacy, or privileges” of women who have terminated their pregnancies. There is no right to freedom from offense; the fact that abortion may be a particularly sensitive or painful topic for some women does not change this fact. And Shelton doesn’t allege that the display contained any identifying details about the aborted fetuses’ mothers, so it’s difficult to understand what privacy interest she’s referring to.

Shelton then turns her attention to what she believes to be the disruptive nature of the display:

What about the people who heeled to the “Warning: Genocide photos ahead” signs and were late to class? I believe that constitutes “disrupt[ing] the normal operations of the University” (University Code of Conduct, Art. V, Sec. 7).

A display presumably designed to be provocative and draw student attention seems to have succeeded, and Shelton thinks that’s grounds for punishment. Of course, no student was under any obligation whatsoever to “heel” to the signs, and the display didn’t force anyone to be late for class. And as far as the content is concerned, if Shelton really thinks that University of Georgia students are too weak to handle graphic photos or avert their eyes while walking by the display, she must have a pretty poor opinion of her fellow classmates.

Unfortunately, she isn’t finished with her disruption argument.

Though most buildings near Tate Plaza have entrances out of view from bloody fetuses, the ATMs don’t, making the display a “disruption or obstruction of teaching, research, administration or other University activities, including its public service functions on or off campus,” (University Code of Conduct, Art. V, Sec. 1).

Since when does using the ATM constitute a “University activity”? Furthermore, the display is only a disruption or obstruction if one chooses to neglect his/her duties and stare at it. Again, asking for state punishment of a messenger for the interesting, attention-grabbing content of their message is completely antithetical to the First Amendmentwhich the University of Georgia, as a public institution, is required to uphold.

Shelton’s final argument in favor of censorship makes the least sense.

And for our beloved Jewish students, comparing aborted fetuses to the annihilation of two thirds of the Jewish population during World War II constitutes as [sic] “conduct that causes or provokes a disturbance that disrupts the academic pursuits…of another person,” (University Code of Conduct, Art. V, Sec. 2).

Regardless of whether one agrees with CBR’s comparison of abortion and the Holocaust, it requires an incredible imagination to figure out how this assertion “…causes or provokes a disturbance that disrupts the academic pursuits…of another person.”

Shelton is not content with just censoring outside groups that break the rules; she also wants to punish the student organizations that host them!

Not only should these preachers, photos and whatever group wants to display them be restricted on campus, the student orgaizations that invite them should be fined, suspended or whatever the proper punishment the division of student affairs can think up.

Fines and arbitrary punishment for protected speech? What country does Shelton think we live in? Her call for discretionary administrative power reminds me of an incident at another public Georgia institution where a student was expelled for protesting the president’s proposed parking garage. Does Shelton really wish to convert UGA into a place where students are afraid to host controversial groups for fear of administrative reprisal?

Interestingly, Shelton writes the “Sex in the Classic City” column for The Red & Black, where she expresses controversial and, to some, “offensive” views such as advocacy of masturbation. We gently remind Shelton that journalists, especially those writing about topics like sex, can’t operate without freedom of expression. Although Shelton is all too happy to loosely interpret the Code of Conduct to censor certain groups with whom she seemingly disagrees, I doubt she’d be willing to swallow her own medicine if others were to manipulate campus policies in order to censor her works.

If Shelton thinks she’s immune from censorship, consider how easily someoneperhaps one of those “extremist Christians” whom she is so eager to censorcould claim that her articles violate the university anti-harassment policy‘s prohibition of “a pattern of conduct, which can be subtle in nature, that has sexual overtones and is intended to create or has the effect of creating discomfort and/or that humiliates another.” And surely some zealous anti-sex crusader could also claim that her articles constitute “…inappropriate display of sexually explicit pictures, text, printed materials, or objects that do not serve an academic purpose,” which is also prohibited by this policy. This same zealot could also encourage the administration to fine, suspend, or even expel Shelton, following her logic concerning unbridled administrative power.

Instead of demanding censorship, students like Shelton should promote freedom of speech for all, regardless of viewpoint, and test their beliefs and values in the marketplace of ideas. (This is especially true at UGA, where the administration already does more than enough to silence unpopular speech.)  Shelton unfortunately disagrees with this assertion, arguing early in her column that:

CBR has a right to free speech in America, but the University, under the University Code of Conduct, should not allow their pictures.

Thankfully, since UGA is in fact a public university “in America,” its students are entitled to the free speech protections guaranteed by the United States and Georgia Constitutions. That means that Shelton’s “free speech for me, but not for thee” stance doesn’t pass legal muster.

Worryingly, the dangers of students like Shelton “unlearning liberty” and actively calling for the censorship of others won’t simply be contained in the university. Shelton speaks of a divide between free speech in America and censorship at the university, but if more and more students graduate thinking like her, it’s only a matter of time before that divide is blurred forever and free speech is no longer an American right.

Schools:  University of Georgia