University of Michigan (UM) Athletics Director Dave Brandon has come under heavy fire recently from critics who say he’s mismanaged the department, particularly after football player Shane Morris was allowed to continue playing despite sustaining a head injury during a game on Saturday. This week, UM student newspaper the Michigan Review reported on the controversy surrounding Brandon, as well as an on-campus rally Tuesday at which students called for Brandon to be fired. The Michigan Review’s article is accompanied by an image of a painting depicting beheading by guillotine, with Brandon’s head copied and pasted into the grip of the executioner. The cartoon didn’t sit well with some on campus; in an article today, College Fix editor Jennifer Kabbany relays concerns from an adjunct lecturer who called for the image to be removed and alerted campus police to the matter.
Involving campus police in response to a newspaper’s cartoon that students want Brandon’s head is an obvious overreaction. But when contacted by Kabbany, this is what the lecturer, Kai Petainen, had to say:
“I’m against censorship, but I’m also in favor of some common-sense and attention to the world beyond us,” he replied via email. “Within the world of education, all too often we hear of violence at schools (think of school shootings). And recently, we hear a lot about beheadings and more violence in the world around us. When it comes to matters relating to beheadings or violence (and mixing that in with school matters), then that’s not a laughing matter. Some may want Brandon to resign (I’m not commenting on that issue), but to draw an image of him decapitated is disturbing and lacks some common-sense to the worldwide issues around us. … I cc-d campus police as I like to keep them in the loop as to the things that I see.”
Michigan Review editor Derek Draplin (who broke the story on the bizarre “sexual violence” policy I wrote about yesterday for The Huffington Post) told Kabbany that Petainen’s request was “just another example of the uber-sensitivity prevalent on campuses today.” He’s standing by the decision to run the cartoon, and he’s invited Petainen to write to the paper to share his point of view.
In her piece, Kabbany writes:
That this illustration is akin to any editorial cartoon in a newspaper should go without saying, but in today’s world, people’s hurt feelings seem to trump free speech rights, especially on a college campus.
The picture was certainly thought-provoking, because that’s what it was supposed to be. It’s not an act of violence or aggression, nor does it even come close to the threat of violence. To imply that it does is chilling. To alert the campus police? Overkill.
We agree. The University of Michigan is a public institution legally and morally bound by the First Amendment, and an image like this—which cannot reasonably be interpreted as a threat—is no less protected just because violent incidents sometimes occur at schools, or because of recent tragedies in the news. Further, newspapers contain disturbing content all the time; that’s the nature of reporting on real news. And of course, it would be an utter waste of time and resources for campus police to look into every article or image in the newspaper that someone finds “disturbing” by some allegedly “common-sense” standard. More to the point, it’s a dangerous attack on newspapers’ First Amendment rights that can only chill their expression.
And we at FIRE know we’re not the only free speech advocates tired of hearing sentences that start with “I’m against censorship, but…” They rarely end well. Petainen’s assertion that he is against censorship but a harmless Photoshopped drawing should be removed from an independent university newspaper’s website is indefensible.
Happily, there doesn’t appear to be any more action to watch here. But it’s disappointing to see calls for censorship by an academic—and alarming to see that he tried to involve campus police, especially with such an uncompelling justification.