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University of Memphis Professor Confuses Vandalism with Free Speech

Today the University of Memphis’ student newspaper The Daily Helmsman has an article about an art professor who feels he is being penalized for his criticism of the university. According to the Helmsman:

An art professor who has been an outspoken critic of the University of Memphis’ administration said he was threatened with criminal prosecution and the loss of his faculty senate seat for stenciling messages on University buildings over winter break.

Cedar Nordbye, associate professor, accused University administrators of harassing him for exercising his right to free speech. An artist by profession, Nordbye used acrylic ink to stencil the message “The University of Memphis is NOT a business” on four campus buildings right after Christmas.

Nordbye told the Helmsman, “I think that through the administration’s effort to remove me from my senate position, there was an effort made to intimidate me and to discourage the kind of free speech that I was engaged in.”

Nordbye may be absolutely right about the university’s motivations. It would not surprise FIRE in the slightest if the university’s interest in punishing him (which, according to the Helmsman, it did not ultimately do) had more to do with the content of his message than with his means of conveying it. After all, the Helmsman itself has been targeted for funding cuts on the basis of its editorial content before. Unfortunately, by choosing to deface university property with permanent ink, Nordbye gave the university a completely legitimate reason to take action. As my colleague Ari Cohn wrote recently about an incident of pro-free-speech vandalism at Syracuse University, “Vandalism is not free speech ... . Free speech does not give anyone license to destroy or deface the property of others.”

Had Nordbye instead posted flyers on campus with the exact same message and the university tried to punish him for his speech, he would have had a very strong case, and I would probably be writing the University of Memphis a letter right now instead of writing this blog. At FIRE, we know all too well that universities will often trample on free speech in an effort to squelch public criticism and avoid embarrassment. When confronted with these blatant acts of censorship, universities generally have no choice but to back down. But when critics use unlawful means to express their discontent, they give universities all the cause they need to punish that expression.

Image courtesy of The Daily Helmsman

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