All too often, it takes someone getting into serious trouble before discussions about free speech arise on a college campus. Because Brandeis University has been involved in a string of free speech incidents—most recently Professor Donald Hindley being found guilty of alleged harassment for protected speech—one of the student newspapers, The Hoot, has attempted to decipher what free speech means at this private university. In a series of articles, student Pat Garofolo critiques the blurry rules regarding allegedly offensive speech in Brandeis’s Rights & Responsibilities handbook, “which aims to establish ‘community standards of behavior.'” The rules are vague and seem to be applied haphazardly, especially with regard to satire, as Garofolo notes:
There is a section in R&R barring “jokes, comments or innuendos that make fun of, denigrate or are based on an individual’s protected group status,” but the vagueness of those terms offers little guidance…. Who decides when jokes aren’t funny?
Because Brandeis is a private university, it is not constitutionally bound to uphold the First Amendment, but it is bound to uphold its promises of free expression. This is where it gets confusing for some students, and they begin question whether offensive speech is really protected by Brandeis’s guarantee of free speech. Garofolo recalls the Gravity magazine advertisement that FIRE blogged about back in May 2007:
When Gravity Magazine printed a satirical ad entitled “BlackJerry” in Spring ’07, the article could technically be considered speech. However, having established that, a host of other issues arose, such as offensive writing versus satire, and the right to publication versus the right to live in a comfortable and diverse environment. Where are the lines when it comes to satirical writing and its potential to offend? In the wake of Gravity, it is still unclear, and there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the Gravity incident isn’t repeated once the parties involved graduate.
Sadly, the “compromise” worked out was a pretty severe punishment for the magazine, which ended up agreeing not to publish at all in the Fall 2007 semester.
The Hoot has conducted “a series of interviews with students, faculty, and members of the administration,” finding:
A variety of opinions arose as to the cause of this issue’s persistence. Many of the discussions pivoted around one concept and came back to one conclusion: Brandeis does not spend enough time talking about speech, and thus does not exploit the educational moments inherent in the controversies that have occurred.
Too often, university administrators try to sweep these speech conflicts under the rug, remaining quiet, as Brandeis has done in the Hindley case. Instead, they should realize the educational value in such situations and encourage campus-wide discussion of the true powers and limits of free expression. FIRE applauds student organizations and newspapers like The Hoot, which bring these issues to light and point out how their school policies need to become clearer, fairer, or more justly enforced according to the school’s own promises. We only wish the Brandeis administration would do the same.