The university, located in the New York City borough of Queens, alerted the NYPD last year after a student wrote a fictional story about a school shooting. The student, Daniel Perrone, wrote the piece as part of a fiction workshop that required him to write about “monstrous” material.
In the letter sent yesterday, NYCLU Senior Staff Attorney Mariko Hirose asked St. John’s to balance its “legitimate concerns for campus security” with “clear, transparent policies that respect the difference between threats to campus security and creative writing.”
Hirose argues that Perrone’s story should not have been considered a true threat, given that “the piece was within the scope of an open-ended assignment in a class called ‘Graduate Fiction Workshop: The Monstrous,’ and that it included a disclaimer at the outset that its contents do not reflect the intentions of the author.”
Perrone met with St. John’s officials after the investigation, and asked them to clarify the school’s policies so students can be assured that their rights to freedom of speech and intellectual freedom are protected on campus. St. John’s declined to do so.
NYCLU’s letter, co-signed by FIRE and the American Society of Journalists and Authors, the Association of American Publishers, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and Project Censored/Media Freedom Foundation asks St. John’s to:
[e]ngage with us to ensure that it has a policy that allows adequate breathing room for Mr. Perrone and students like him to explore fiction writing, including writing that some may find disturbing. Some of the greatest writings in literature, from Vladimir Nabokov to Edgar Allan Poe to Toni Morrison to Cormac McCarthy have the capacity to be deeply disturbing.
Other programs around the country have successfully found ways to address concerns over student safety without chilling campus speech, Hirose wrote:
Creative writing programs around the country, including those that have experienced tragedies like Virginia Tech, recognize the importance of providing guidance to their faculty on these issues and instituting policies that avoid reflexively contacting the police in response to disturbing writing. We hope that St. John’s will re-consider its unwillingness to make clear such a policy so that future students will be free to explore the various themes of our modern lives, including the truly disturbing and tragic ones, in their creative writing without fear of a police encounter.
FIRE hopes St. John’s uses this opportunity to affirm that it supports speech—including creative writing—on campus.