DETROIT, December 7, 2012—Blatantly ignoring the First Amendment, administrators at Saginaw Valley State University (SVSU) in Michigan's Tri-Cities area have repeatedly censored a student's posters—ironically, posters that protest a new, unconstitutional SVSU policy that allows the school to censor student postings. SVSU student Daniel Chapman has come to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"You read that right: SVSU is using its unlawful censorship policy to censor student criticism of its unlawful censorship policy," said FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley. "SVSU administrators have displayed no understanding of the First Amendment or why free speech is important in our free society."
Over the summer, SVSU adopted a new posting policy that requires all flyers to be approved by the Student Life office. The policy states that all postings "[m]ust be in good taste, free from profanity, nudity, or sexually suggestive graphics/phrasing," and "[c]annot include discriminatory or derogatory statements or graphics." The policy did not define "good taste," or what is "discriminatory or derogatory," leaving students to guess what might or might not pass muster with the subjective opinions of SVSU administrators.
On August 29, student Daniel Chapman, believing the new speech code to be unconstitutional, submitted posters for approval stating "Fuck Censorship, Fuck Oppression, Fuck the Draft. Fight for Free Speech and Political Expression at SVSU and Elsewhere." As Chapman explained in an email to an administrator, he purposely chose this slogan to parallel the seminal 1971 Supreme Court case of Cohen v. California, in which the Court made clear that the First Amendment protects the use of expletives in the communication of core political speech. In Cohen, the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Vietnam War protester for wearing a jacket emblazoned with the words "Fuck the Draft" in a county courthouse. The Court held that the message on Cohen's jacket, however offensive to some, was protected speech, writing that "one man's vulgarity is another's lyric." The next day, Chapman also submitted pre-censored posters for approval reading "F*ck Censorship" and "F!_!ck Censorship."
Chapman reports that despite the fact that Cohen is one of our highest court's most famous free speech cases, he was told that, after consulting with legal counsel, SVSU had decided to approve a flyer he had submitted saying "Stand Up for Free Speech" but not the ones stating "Fuck Censorship," "F*ck Censorship," or "F!_!ck Censorship." FIRE wrote twice to SVSU President Eric Gilbertson, informing the school that its policies and practices violate the First Amendment. Both letters have gone unanswered.
"It is difficult to understand how SVSU administrators, after consulting with a lawyer, could believe they have the right to censor political speech that contains profanity—even censored profanity—when the Supreme Court has made clear that the exact opposite is true," said FIRE Director of Speech Code Research Samantha Harris. "While their apparent dislike for expletives may be sincere, President Gilbertson and his administration must know that their actions violate the First Amendment. They need to understand that, just like Americans' other civil rights, the First Amendment is not optional, and that as public servants, constitutional obligations come first."
FIRE plans to write Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette and Governor Rick Snyder about SVSU's scofflaw attitude towards the First Amendment and warn them that the actions of SVSU's administration have opened up the taxpayers of Michigan to potential legal liability.
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 on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Samantha Harris, Director of Speech Code Research, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org
Eric R. Gilbertson, President, Saginaw Valley State University: 989-964-4041; email@example.com