CHICAGO, March 24, 2010—For the second time in two years, the University of Chicago has censored a student's post on a private Facebook page. Undergraduate Joseph "Tex" Dozier posted a joke that he had had a dream about assassinating University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer "for a secret Israeli organization." Mearsheimer is co-author of the controversial book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. This post prompted an investigator from the university's police department to question Dozier about his political views, suggest that he would investigate Dozier's comments on his university radio show, and demand that Dozier remove the post or else have the post reported to Mearsheimer, one of his professors. Dozier came to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) for help.
"Any reasonable person would recognize that Dozier's post was unquestionably a joke," said FIRE Vice President Robert Shibley. "If Dozier worked for a secret Israeli organization, would he have announced it via Facebook? And if the University of Chicago truly believed that Dozier presented a threat to a professor's life, how would merely censoring the student have solved the problem? The U of C is making a joke of itself by policing and censoring student comments on Facebook."
On December 6, 2009, Dozier wrote on his personal Facebook page, "Dreamt that I assassinated [University of Chicago professor] John Mearsheimer for a secret Israeli organization - there was a hidden closet w/ Nazi paraphanelia [sic]. Haha! :-)" Mearsheimer is popularly known for his 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy with co-author Stephen Walt. According to the authors, the book "focuses primarily on the lobby's influence on U.S. foreign policy and its negative effect on American interests."
University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD) officer Abraham Martinez phoned Dozier on December 7. According to Dozier, Martinez called the post a "death threat" and asked if Dozier disagreed with Mearsheimer politically. Martinez also asked if he had made "controversial comments" about Mearsheimer in the past that the UCPD should be aware of.
Martinez even told Dozier that he had "researched" Dozier and his weekly radio show The Boiling Point, which is broadcast on university-hosted station WHPK. When Martinez said that he was required to contact Mearsheimer to inform him of Dozier's comment, Dozier replied that Mearsheimer had been one of his professors and that he feared negative repercussions if his innocent comment was reported to Mearsheimer. Martinez responded that if Dozier deleted the comment within 30 minutes, Martinez would include the removal in his official report and not contact Mearsheimer. Dozier negotiated a two-hour window and then deleted his comment.
Neither the University of Chicago nor the UCPD has challenged FIRE's or Dozier's account of this conversation.
FIRE wrote University of Chicago President Robert J. Zimmer on March 2 about the violation of Dozier's expression rights. While the University of Chicago is a private institution not bound by the First Amendment, it explicitly promises students freedom of speech in its Student Manual, which also states that "The ideas of different members of the University community will frequently conflict and we do not attempt to shield people from ideas that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even offensive. Nor, as a general rule, does the University intervene to enforce social standards of civility." The university has not responded.
This is the second time the University of Chicago has censored a student's Facebook post in violation of the university's promises to its students. In 2009, undergraduate Andrew Thompson posted a photograph album on his personal Facebook page under the title, "[Name of ex-girlfriend] cheated on me, and you're next!" The photos were of various persons and were unremarkable, though some of Thompson's Facebook "friends" posted negative statements about the ex-girlfriend.
The next day, after the ex-girlfriend complained, Susan Art, Dean of Students in the College, demanded that Thompson "remove her name and remove the pictures you have posted of her" because of an alleged Student Manual prohibition against "disrespectful" speech.
"Can you let me know when her name and her pictures are removed from your [F]acebook page?" Art wrote. "I expect this to happen right away." Fearing university punishment, Thompson complied with Art's censorship demands, but turned to FIRE for help.
FIRE wrote President Zimmer on February 23, 2009, but the university eventually replied that since FIRE was not threatening litigation, the University of Chicago did not want to engage in any further discussion regarding the issue.
"The University of Chicago had a chance to reverse course last year and start respecting students' free speech rights, but it has continued to monitor students' off-campus Internet speech and censor innocuous comments," said Adam Kissel, Director of FIRE's Individual Rights Defense Program. "The university has failed to fulfill its own promises once again."
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 www.thefire.org.
Tell the University of Chicago to respect student rights. Send a letter to President Zimmer here.