A recent article in The State Press, the student newspaper at Arizona State University, carries the dispiriting news of another sighting of the “heroic censor”—a term we use to refer to students who suppress the free speech of their fellow students not only because they think it is their right, but because they see it as their moral obligation. (We don’t actually think they are heroic.)
In this case at ASU, the censors have aimed their sights at flyers around the ASU campus pointing students to a men’s rights advocacy website. The State Press reports:
Graphic design freshman Abby Daniels stood by one of the Tempe campus’s kiosks Tuesday night putting up fliers that read “We will not obey” in an attempt to cover every flier that has what she believes is a sexist message.
Earlier that day, she noticed the signs for the first time. When she stopped to take a picture of them, a student approached her and told her someone had been systematically tearing them down and that he was hoping to catch whoever was doing it.
She posted the photo in her blog and, so far, it has had almost 100 responses.
One of the responses let her know she was not the only person who had taken action.
Anthropology freshman Danielle Farley responded and told her she had been ripping the signs since last semester.
Yet another student quoted by The State Press freely says:
“I consider (tearing them or covering them) an act of symbolic speech,” [student Nicole Lemme] said. “While it’s free speech to put them up, it’s also free speech to tear them down.”
This is discouraging, frustrating, and simply wrong. It is also worryingly familiar, a point FIRE staffers have been making repeatedly of late, most notably Greg Lukianoff in a piece for Forbes. We’ve also debunked this line of thinking in a pair of entries responding to students who supported the vandalism of a pro-life display at DePaul University.
Fortunately, The State Press also spoke with ASU law professor James Weinstein, who quickly dispenses with the pro-censorship students’ defense:
Taking down the fliers is not freedom of speech, Weinstein said.
“It’s not their right of free speech to deface somebody else’s poster, if the poster is displayed where it has a right to be,” he said.
“It’s the antithesis of free speech,” he said. “To stop the message because they disagree with it is the opposite of free speech.”
Weinstein’s straightforward explanation of the First Amendment principles at stake, aside from providing a necessary education on the basics of freedom of speech to ASU students, captures part of what makes these cases so frustrating: the fact that the student censors could very easily get their messages across without suppressing others’ free speech rights. They could, for instance, place their own flyers next to those flyers they find offensive, inaccurate, or harmful—thus answering speech that they dislike with more speech rather than censorship. Sadly, as this incident makes clear, too few students share that mindset, and too many students choose to censor in the hope of protecting themselves from viewpoints they dislike.
Adding to the disappointment here is that Arizona State University is one of only 16 schools receiving a “green light” speech rating from FIRE, meaning that student speech is given the full protections of the First Amendment that it deserves by ASU’s policies. Compared to the vast majority of ASU’s peers, speech on campus is especially free, and there is more than enough room at the 70,000-student university for a diversity of opinion. The incident does serve as a reminder, however, that cleaning up a university’s speech policies is only part of the solution; students must learn to trust their ability to coexist in a society that values freedom of expression and rejects the idea that there is a right not to be offended. On that part, there is clearly still work to be done at ASU.