Table of Contents

Western Washington University punishes racing team for sending photo of penis drawing on pizza box

The university faulted the group for drawing ‘a symbol of white, male power and domination.’
Western Washington University Racing V64

Western Washington University

Over the last 25 years, FIRE has defended students’ right to draw genitalia on free speech balls, post pictures of rainbow-striped penis plushies adorned with little faces (aka, “Penisgate”), and illustrate the “cockness monster” on whiteboards. If it’s protected, we defend it. No excuses, no apologies. That’s why now, at Western Washington University, we’re going to bat for its student racing team suspended for sending a Snapchat photo of a penis drawing on a pizza box.

In a Nov. 3 letter to the group, WWU Engineering and Design Department Chair and team faculty advisor David Gill revoked the team’s lab access for a week for posting “inappropriate images on whiteboards and otherwise in the ET155 spaces.” 

Gill expressed disappointment in what he called the team’s “continued apathy toward an inclusive and welcoming culture,” which he said was evident in a number of different forms, including “written and verbal communication of unacceptable messages.” He then asked the team to consider whether their actions have been welcoming or, rather, promoted a culture of “inside jokes, gold-ole-boy humor, or talking negatively about individuals or organizations.” 

The team believes this refers to a private Snapchat group picture of a penis drawn on a pizza box in the lab. 

Gill warned the team that “continued posting of penis images is completely inappropriate and is not funny in the least,” adding, “This is a symbol of white, male power and domination. Even if you did not intend it in that way, it is commonly used in that manner and will, therefore, be seen by many as symbolizing that unacceptable message.”

FIRE reiterated to WWU that there is nothing funny about violating students’ fundamental First Amendment rights. 

What’s truly unacceptable is the chilling message WWU is sending students. As we first explained to WWU in a Nov. 20 letter, public universities may not punish students for expression that the university deems inappropriate, uncivil, or vulgar. Student free speech rights do not end at the sensibilities of university officials. In fact, the Supreme Court established 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.’” 

The First Amendment’s wide-ranging protection for vulgarity covers not only the WWU students here, but also protestors’ use of genitalia imagery for political messagessuch as advocacy for women’s rights and reproductive freedom. One student’s token of white supremacy is another’s resistance symbol. That’s why even high-minded censorship of crude speech won’t make society any safer or wiser. Put plainly by the the late, great comedian Lenny Bruce, “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’”

Hands knitting crochet

Penisgate: Crochet, Obscenity and Free Speech on Facebook


In recognition of FIRE's expansion into off-campus free speech advocacy work, summer intern Melanie Nolan explores the implications of an obscenity debate in a private Facebook group.

Read More

Even more disturbing is Gill’s directive to “never post anything that would embarrass the department, the University, SAE [Society of Automotive Engineers] International, or the WWU Racing team.” This gets the First Amendment exactly backward, as it protects individuals from punishment for embarrassing the government — it does not protect the government from ridicule by citizens. Student groups do not represent the university, especially in their private social media posts. Gill’s directive cannot stand.

WWU failed to address this punishment after assuring us it would resolve the issue internally. So yesterday, FIRE reiterated to WWU that there is nothing funny about violating students’ fundamental First Amendment rights. To the contrary, administrators’ ignorance of basic free principles, such as robust protection for crude and indecent student expression, is a serious matter demanding immediate attention.

FIRE has offered WWU administrators training on their First Amendment responsibilities, free of charge. We are always happy to help colleges better understand the contours and values of free speech. WWU can get a head start by rescinding its chilling directive to the racing team and promising to uphold student free speech rights going forward.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.