When citizens criticize public officials, the First Amendment’s protection is “at its zenith” — even when those officials don’t like what their fellow citizens may have to say. This is a lesson Louisiana State University would do well to learn in light of its punishment of a graduate student for his protected political speech.
FIRE has now written LSU twice objecting to the university’s violation of the First Amendment and due process rights of Marcus Venable, a graduate student and instructor who left a profanity-laden, anonymous voicemail for State Sen. Mike Fesi that criticized his voting record on trans rights. The senator reported the voicemail to Louisiana State Police, concerned it may have been a threat. (It wasn’t.) But the police erred in pursuing the case long enough to identify Venable, before they ultimately declared the case closed. But while even the police recognized Venable’s voicemail broke no law, that wasn’t enough for LSU, which declared it wouldn’t give Venable graduate instructorships in the future because of his speech.
LSU has ignored FIRE’s letters — including a second one sent last week — explaining that the university is acting unlawfully.
“You fat fucking piece of shit”
Following Sen. Fesi’s July 18 vote in favor of a bill prohibiting certain procedures for gender-transitioning minors, Venable expressed his passionate disagreement to Fesi via voicemail. After a local news outlet publicized the voicemail, LSU administrators wrongly interpreted the content of the voicemail as a threat to Fesi and removed Venable from his teaching duties — without the opportunity to appeal.
Venable’s voicemail consisted of name-calling and anticipation for Fesi’s death:
I just wanted to say congratulations, to our State Senator, Big Mike Fesi. And that fucking moron voted to make things worse for people who are already suffering. You fat fucking piece of shit. You did not produce any goddamn evidence to support the claims you made about people being harmed by transgender care, yet we’ve had tons of empirical evidence telling us there’s an increased suicide risk for people who don’t get this care. So you, you big fat headed mother fucker, I can’t wait to read your name in the fucking obituary. I will make a goddamn martini made from the tears of your butthurt conservatives when we put your fucking ass in the ground, you fat fucking useless piece of shit. Fuck you. I hope you have a terrible day. Go fuck yourself.
Upon the public release of the voicemail, many called on LSU to dismiss Venable from his graduate teaching position, believing his words constituted a threat to the senator. Wasting no time, LSU released a public statement on July 20 before contacting Venable directly:
As a university, we foster open and respectful dialogue. Like everyone, graduate students with teaching assignments have the right to express their opinions, but this profanity-filled, threatening call crossed the line. This does not exhibit the character we expect of someone given the privilege of teaching as part of their graduate assistantship. The student will be allowed to continue their studies but will not be extended the opportunity to teach in the future.
The next day, FIRE demanded LSU reinstate Venable to his graduate assistantship because the voicemail does not meet the stringent standard for an unprotected true threat. All of these statements fall squarely within the First Amendment’s protection of political speech.
For speech to reach the level of a true threat, it must communicate a serious intent to commit an unlawful act of violence upon a particular group or individual, and the speaker must have consciously disregarded a substantial risk that their speech would place another in fear of serious physical harm. Based on the voicemail, Venable’s speech was political hyperbole and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Moreover, Venable was not afforded due process, as he was made aware of his dismissal only through the press statement LSU released and never received an opportunity to appeal that determination. This violates LSU’s student handbook. Venable received neither notification of any alleged violation, any reasoning for LSU imposing the interim measure of removal from teaching duties, nor any opportunity to respond to or appeal the decision as of the date of this letter — weeks after the initial punishment. Had LSU afforded Venable the fundamental right to be heard prior to punishment, administrators may have recognized his statements constitute speech protected by the First Amendment.
“As my grandfather said, ‘The duty of the strong is to protect the weak,’ and that is what I did here by standing up for trans rights. I should not be punished for expressing myself and standing up for others,” Venable told FIRE. “A public university like LSU cannot strip me of my teaching duties just because they do not like what I had to say.”
FIRE will continue to call out LSU until they rectify this ongoing violation of Marcus Venable’s rights.
FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...