According to Framingham State University’s (FSU’s) student newspaper The Gatepost, campus police officers questioned several FSU students over their public comments about two of their peers’ Halloween costumes depicting domestic violence. Gatepost editors aptly pointed out that such questioning is not acceptable at FSU, a public university in Massachusetts bound by the First Amendment.
FSU junior Victoria Dansereau is already speaking with the American Civil Liberties Union and considering taking legal action after she was interrogated on cyberbullying charges for a post she made to Facebook. In response to an Instagram photo of a female student with a fake black eye and a male student posed as if he were about to hit her, Dansereau wrote as her Facebook status:
A girl at my school dressed up for Halloween as ‘a domestic violence victim.’ I hope you know that you’re disgusting to the core for a) sexualizing domestic violence, and b) making it comedic in the same breath. You’re clearly going somewhere in life.
Dansereau told The Gatepost that campus police told her on Saturday morning to come to the station “immediately” and, when she arrived, proceeded to question her about the post and tell her it “goes beyond [her] freedom of speech.”
But Dansereau’s post doesn’t go beyond her constitutionally protected freedom of speech. In fact, it doesn’t come close to constituting a true threat, fighting words, libel, harassment, or any of the other narrowly-defined categories of speech unprotected by the First Amendment. If simply calling someone “disgusting” is a punishable offense, the First Amendment would protect only complimentary, nonjudgmental speech—which, of course, it does not.
According to Dansereau, an officer told her she would likely be terminated from her on-campus jobs, and she was instructed to remove the post from Facebook. Though she did remove the post, thankfully her employment was intact as of The Gatepost’s reporting.
Two Gatepost editors were also questioned by campus police regarding a news article and an opinion piece about the Halloween costumes. In response, The Gatepost published an editorial emphasizing that all parties’ rights to respond to each other must be protected:
This past week, some community members have criticized our choice to write a news article about the two students who wore the Halloween costumes. It is within their rights to voice those opinions and even write opinion pieces themselves if they disagree with the content that we publish. We welcome this, in fact.
[W]e can’t shy away from the stories which might make people upset. It is our job to investigate stories that are impactful to the community and report them factually and ethically, which, once published, can often begin the process of resolution, even if the discussion we generate temporarily creates unrest within the community.
Public criticism of our choices, however, is not the same as school officials, who are trained and sworn officers of the law, calling student journalists down to the police station to question editorial decisions that are by no means within Campus Police’s authority to control.
FIRE could not agree more, and we are glad to see student journalists who refuse to shy away from difficult issues.
FSU President F. Javier Cevallos acknowledged that it was “certainly inappropriate for an officer to ask about the content of the newspaper” and the Student Press Law Center reports that he promised to better train officers so that they know not to do so in the future. Though it is worrying that the officers ever thought it appropriate to investigate Dansereau’s Facebook post and The Gatepost’s articles, Cevallos at least seems to understand the breadth of the First Amendment’s protections. He said, “[A]ctually, freedom of speech exists precisely to protect speech that can be deemed offensive, or annoying or bothersome or troublesome.”