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This Month in FIRE History: Muzzling Dave Barry at Marquette
Fresh on the heels of our case at the University of Wisconsin–Stout, it seems appropriate to look back five years at a similar case involving an overzealous administration and an "offensive" poster.
In October 2006, Marquette Ph.D. student Stuart Ditsler came to FIRE for help after Philosophy Department Chair James South removed a flyer quoting well-known humor writer Dave Barry from his office door. 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." Despite the fact that other department members had posted similar materials on their doors in the past, South argued that the department's hallways and office doors were not "free-speech zones" and that the quote was "patently offensive"—a characterization normally reserved for hardcore pornography.
According to South, Ditsler's flyer had "no obvious academic import" and was therefore not a permissible form of expression. This claim stood in direct contrast to the school's own statements in the Marquette Student Handbook, which proudly advertised the school's full respect for 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."
In our defense of Ditsler, FIRE pointed out these conflicting standards and called on the school to reverse the decision and restore its commitment to academic freedom and free expression. Dave Barry himself joined the fight, filming an interview with FIRE in which he stressed the importance of free speech on campus.
Five years later, Marquette has yet to heed this message. While significant public pressure and celebrity support helped bring resolution to the recent case at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Ditsler's case remains outstanding, to the great discredit of the Marquette administration. Both of these cases are excellent examples of how overzealous administrators abuse their positions to silence inconvenient, offensive, or disagreeable opinions. As long as those threats remain, FIRE will remain a vigilant advocate for free expression, whether it be in the form of a Dave Barry quote, a free speech wall, or a campus club.
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