NEWARK, Del., April 15, 2016—Today, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to the University of Delaware (UD) voicing concerns about expressive rights on campus after a UD police officer confronted students on Wednesday and told them to self-censor a “free speech ball”—a large, plastic beach ball on which they encouraged other students to write their thoughts. The officer informed students that a drawing of a penis and the word “penis” on the ball could violate the university’s sexual misconduct policy.
FIRE’s letter urges UD to ensure its police understand and respect the First Amendment rights of its students, and to reform policies that threaten student expression.
“A campus police officer should never ask students to self-censor their constitutionally protected speech,” said Senior Program Officer Marieke Tuthill Beck-Coon. “As a public university, UD must abide by the First Amendment, which has very few exceptions—and subjectively offensive words or images are not one of them.”
On Wednesday, April 13, members of UD’s Young Americans for Liberty (YAL) chapter set up a table on campus to promote a screening of the FIRE-sponsored documentary Can We Take A Joke?, a film that explores what happens when comedy and censorship collide. While students Jason Stewart and Aaron Cooper manned the table and invited passing students to write on the free speech ball, Michael Slater, a uniformed UD Department of Public Safety officer, approached them. Slater pointed out a drawing of a penis and the word “penis” on the ball and told Stewart and Cooper that the drawing and word were in possible violation of UD’s sexual misconduct policy.
Slater told Cooper and Stewart to scribble out the penis references or turn them into something else. Slater then contacted a second officer, believed to be his superior, to confirm that his censorship was appropriate.
In a later exchange captured on video, Slater cited several categories of speech that he insisted the YAL members monitor when students added messages to the ball. He claimed UD police “have to investigate” incidents of “derogatory” writings, which he classified as potential “hate crimes.” Slater also warned about written “rumor[s],” which might be “harassing” or “libel.” Slater even told the students, “we also gotta, you know, keep in the back of our mind that everything that people say may be, you know, offensive to other people.”
Stewart and Cooper eventually agreed to cover up the word penis and the drawing, prompting Slater to leave. The two students tabled for several more hours but declined to censor the penis references.
YAL released a statement this morning about the encounter. In the statement, YAL Director of Free Speech C.J. Sailor drew upon the words of FIRE President and CEO Greg Lukianoff and said, “Here we have yet another case of students’ constitutionally guaranteed right to Free Speech being attacked. As the recent events at Emory University showed, there's a fundamental misunderstanding on college campuses, where even the faculty believe in freedom from speech instead of freedom of speech.”
FIRE is a nonpartisan, 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 campus across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Katie Barrows, Communications Coordinator, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org