HOUSTON, Oct. 6, 2011—Two weeks ago, a professor at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) used a box cutter to cut an insult against President Obama out of a "free speech wall" promoted by four student organizations. When campus police arrived, an officer demanded that the students censor the wall or else face criminal charges for having offended the professor. The students have come to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"This is an astounding example of the 'heckler's veto,' where one professor decided he could dictate what everyone else is allowed to say—and the campus police actually took his side," FIRE President Greg Lukianoff said. "Furthermore, it's absurd to threaten students with criminal charges for other people's expression on a 'free speech wall.'"
In September, students learned about a new social media policy planned for SHSU. The policy claims that the letters "SHSU" and similar terms have been trademarked, so student organizations that want to use these terms in their online identities (including the names of their organizations) will have to join a very speech-restrictive "Official Community" controlled by the university. Joining the "Official Community" requires turning over a group's social media passwords to the university, giving the university authority to approve a group's "official profile image[s]/avatars," and giving the university authority to edit and delete a group's social media content. If the groups do not join, they will have to change their online names so as not to use the terms trademarked by SHSU.
To protest this policy, four student organizations—SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Sam Houston Democratic Socialists, and College Republicans—cosponsored the display of a "free speech wall" on September 22. The student groups had received permission from SHSU to erect the wall. Many students wrote a variety of political and other messages on the wall, including "don't hate against Gays," "If you make less than $200,000 Republicans don't care about you," "Han Solo Shot First," "Legalize Weed," and "FUCK OBAMA." Someone wrote "BUSH" under "OBAMA," and others joined the political dialogue on the wall.
According to a statement to police filed the same day by SHSU Lovers of Liberty President Morgan Freeman, SHSU Professor of Mathematics Joe E. Kirk demanded that the student organizers cover up the part of the wall containing the profanity about President Obama. They declined, so Kirk cut out the profanity next to the word "Obama" (but none of the other profanities on the wall) with a box cutter. To report Kirk's vandalism, the students called in an SHSU Police Department officer, who interviewed Kirk and then informed the students that they must either cover up all of the profanity on the wall or take down the wall altogether. The students refused to be agents of the university's selective censorship and therefore felt forced to take down the entire wall, which they did.
Later that day, University Police Department Deputy Chief James Fitch told SHSU student newspaper The Houstonian that because Kirk was "offended by the use of the profanity," its use "qualified it as disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor."
FIRE wrote SHSU President Dana L. Gibson on September 23 in defense of the First Amendment on campus, noting that the Supreme Court stated in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri (1973) that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of 'conventions of decency.'" FIRE also cited the landmark Supreme Court case Cohen v. California (1971), which made it clear that public profanity in the communication of core political speech is protected, writing that "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric."
Gibson responded later that day, assuring FIRE that the incident was "under investigation." On October 4, SHSU Public Information Officer Julia May replied, acknowledging that Kirk "overreacted" but failing to address the police officer's censorship demand and threat of criminal charges against the students. FIRE asked Gibson for clarification on October 5, but SHSU has not responded.
"The worst overreaction in this case came from the campus police, who not only demanded censorship of a 'free speech wall' but also have put students on notice that they could be criminally charged simply for offending others," FIRE Vice President of Programs Adam Kissel said. "Sam Houston State University must reassure students that it will defend their First Amendment rights against such a terrible misinterpretation of the law."
FIRE also named SHSU as "Speech Code of the Month" for October 2011 due to its unconstitutional ban on "using abusive, indecent, profane or vulgar language."
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, freedom of expression, academic freedom, due process, and rights of conscience at our nation's colleges and universities. FIRE's efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America are described at thefire.org.