MILWAUKEE, Wis., October 18, 2006—Writer and humorist Dave Barry probably never expected that one of his jokes would spark a university free speech dispute. But in early September, a Marquette University administrator removed a Barry quote about the federal government from Ph.D. student Stuart Ditsler’s office door because the quote was “patently offensive.” Facing this arbitrary exercise of political censorship, Ditsler contacted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
“There have been several high-profile free speech controversies on campuses recently, such as at Columbia this month. But incidents like this one at Marquette and on other campuses illustrate how even innocuous expression is under ongoing assault at our colleges and universities,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said.
In late August, Ditsler posted a quote by Dave Barry on his office door in the philosophy department. The quote read, “As Americans we must always remember that we all have a common enemy, an enemy that is dangerous, powerful, and relentless. I refer, of course, to the federal government.” On September 5, Philosophy Department Chair James South sent Ditsler an e-mail stating that he had received several complaints and therefore removed the quote. He wrote, “While I am a strong supporter of academic freedom, I’m afraid that hallways and office doors are not ‘free-speech zones.’ If material is patently offensive and has no obvious academic import or university sanction, I have little choice but to take note.”
“This incident at Marquette is part of a truly disturbing trend,” Lukianoff said. “Administrators seem willing to ban speech across the board and to designate increasingly tiny ‘free speech zones’ rather than risk any student or faculty member being offended.”
Ditsler reports that other members of the philosophy department have posted materials on their doors in the past without receiving reprimand or sanctions. FIRE wrote to Marquette University President Robert A. Wild on September 27 stating that Marquette’s policy against “offensive” materials is completely discretionary and therefore subject to abuse. FIRE also reminded Wild that Marquette’s Student Handbook protects the “right of the members of the university community freely to communicate, by lawful demonstration and protest, the positions that they conscientiously espouse on vital issues of the day.” Wild has not responded to FIRE’s letter.
Marquette’s affinity for censorship is reminiscent of the attitudes that several universities adopted during last February’s Mohammed cartoon controversy. In March, FIRE reported that administrators at Century College in suburban Minnesota told geography professor Karen Murdock to remove her display of the Mohammed cartoons, even after she posted them behind a curtain to avoid offending unsuspecting passers-by. In response to that controversy, administrators instituted a new policy demanding that professors get all materials approved before posting them on bulletin boards. Murdock reports that this new policy has seriously hindered professors’ ability to post materials as they please.
“On college campuses today, anything—from sports team recruitment posters, to cartoons, to harmless jokes—is fair game for censorship,” Lukianoff said. “FIRE will continue to oppose universities that choose wholesale bans on speech over the free expression of ideas.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty at Marquette can be viewed at thefire.org/marquette.
Greg Lukianoff, President, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Robert A. Wild, S.J., President, Marquette University: 414-288-7223; email@example.com
Lawrence Litecky, President, Century College: 651-779-3342; firstname.lastname@example.org