At the behest of Indiana University-Bloomington (IUB) Provost Lauren Robel, the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office in Bloomington, Indiana, announced on Tuesday that it will not file felony intimidation charges against IUB student Alex Carlisle.
Carlisle turned himself in to police last week after a tweet he posted was interpreted as a death threat against Robel. The tweet, which read "Kill Provost Robel," came alongside a retweet from the Twitter handle @IUonStrike.
At first glance I could see how Carlisle’s tweet could raise some eyebrows. But for anyone who follows happenings at IUB closely, it should become quickly apparent that, in context, the tweet amounts to little more than a sarcastic comment on a hot-button campus issue.
As an IUB alumnus and former columnist for IUB’s student paper, the Indiana Daily Student (IDS), I happen to be pretty tied into what’s going on at my alma mater. For weeks, I’ve been reading stories about a strike planned at IUB for April 11 and 12 to coincide with the annual Indiana University Board of Trustees meeting. Organized by IU on Strike, a group of IUB community members, the strike’s main goal was to pressure the university administration to meet a list of demands the group had drawn up.
On April 2, upset with the lack of response to their demands from the IUB administration and Robel leading up to their strike, IU on Strike concluded one of their demonstrations with a march through Robel’s office. The march drummed up quite a bit of controversy, as some of the strike members allegedly shoved Robel’s executive secretary and broke into an internal office, where they threw fliers around.
Throughout the entire discussion leading up the strike, Carlisle had been a vocal critic of the movement and its demands. He had written three separate columns for the IDS questioning or attacking the movement in one fashion or another. In his most recent column, he wrote that the "occustrikers will fail because their tactics are flawed, and their solutions are flawed."
It was in this context that Carlisle posted his tweet, and it is in this context that it is protected speech. Carlisle’s tweet was meant as a sarcastic comment poking fun at IU on Strike for what he considered their hyperbolic language, aggressive activism, and unreasonable demands of Robel and her office. No reasonable analysis of the situation would lead anyone to determine Carlisle actually wanted to "Kill Provost Robel." Interim Indiana University Police Department (IUPD) Chief Laury Flint said in a statement that "[Carlisle] thought he was making it clear he was using sarcasm, so it was not meant to be taken seriously." Even the IU on Strike folks understood this, tweeting shortly after Carlisle’s arrest:
After contextualizing Carlisle’s tweet and learning of its satirical nature, we’re glad that Robel and the Monroe County Prosecutor’s Office did the right thing in deciding not to pursue the felony intimidation charges that the IDS reported he faced. Sarcasm and satire have long occupied a cherished place within political commentators’ rhetorical arsenal going back to even before the United States’ most famous satirist, Mark Twain, popularized the device, and courts have long granted the rhetoric First Amendment protection.
While Carlisle might be out of the woods as far as the felony charges go, there has yet to be a guarantee that he won’t be brought up on student conduct charges within the IUB student judiciary system. The IDS also reports that it is still reviewing whether Carlisle violated the IDS Code of Ethics or the employment agreement that he signed before becoming an IDS columnist.
FIRE will continue to monitor the situation.