Professor Takes Box Cutter to Students’ Free Speech Wall at Sam Houston State University; Police Threaten Students with Charges over Profanity about President Obama

By October 6, 2011

Two weeks ago, a professor at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) vandalized a "free speech wall" promoted by four student organizations because he was offended by a message that read "FUCK OBAMA." When campus police arrived, an officer demanded that the students censor the wall or else face criminal charges for having offended the professor.

FIRE had hoped that SHSU would quickly remedy the injustice. SHSU informed FIRE that the incident was "under investigation," and later expressed regret over the professor’s "overreaction" (which puts it lightly), but SHSU so far has failed to address the chilling response by its police department to SHSU students’ exercise of free speech.

Declamations concerning our national leaders are nothing new on college campuses; unfortunately, neither is their prosecution by college authorities. At Colorado State University in 2007, for example, administrators investigated and admonished the editor of the college’s newspaper for running an editorial which read in its entirety, "Taser this…FUCK BUSH." FIRE was among the organizations condemning the university’s unconstitutional investigation. Hindsight being 20/20, of course, it might have been helpful to send a copy to SHSU for its files.

Here’s how events unfolded at SHSU: In September, students learned about a new social media policy planned for SHSU. The policy claims that the letters "SHSU" and similar terms have been trademarked, so student organizations that want to use these terms in their online identities (including the names of their organizations) will have to join a very speech-restrictive "Official Community" controlled by the university. Joining the "Official Community" requires turning over a group’s social media passwords to the university, giving the university authority to approve a group’s "official profile image[s]/avatars," and giving the university authority to edit and delete a group’s social media content. If the groups do not join, they will have to change their online names so as not to use the terms trademarked by SHSU.

To protest this policy, four student organizations—SHSU Lovers of Liberty, Bearkat Democrats, Sam Houston Democratic Socialists, and College Republicans—cosponsored the display of a "free speech wall" on September 22. The student groups had received permission from SHSU to erect the wall. Many students wrote a variety of political and other messages on the wall, including "don’t hate against Gays," "If you make less than $200,000 Republicans don’t care about you," "Han Solo Shot First," "Legalize Weed," and "FUCK OBAMA." Someone wrote "BUSH" under "OBAMA," and others joined the political dialogue on the wall.

According to a statement to police filed the same day by SHSU Lovers of Liberty President Morgan Freeman, SHSU Professor of Mathematics Joe E. Kirk demanded that the student organizers cover up the part of the wall containing the profanity about President Obama. They declined, so Kirk cut out the profanity next to the word "Obama" (but none of the other profanities on the wall) with a box cutter. To report Kirk’s vandalism, the students called in an SHSU Police Department officer, who interviewed Kirk and then informed the students that they must either cover up all of the profanity on the wall or take down the wall altogether. The students refused to be agents of the university’s selective censorship and therefore felt forced to take down the entire wall, which they did.

Later that day, University Police Department Deputy Chief James Fitch told SHSU student newspaper The Houstonian that because Kirk was "offended by the use of the profanity," its use "qualified it as disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor."

FIRE wrote SHSU President Dana L. Gibson on September 23 in defense of the First Amendment on campus, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri (1973) 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.’" FIRE also cited the landmark Supreme Court case Cohen v. California (1971), which made it clear that public profanity in the communication of core political speech is protected, writing that "one man’s vulgarity is another’s lyric."

Gibson responded later that day, assuring FIRE that the incident was "under investigation." On October 4, SHSU Public Information Officer Julia May replied, acknowledging that Kirk "overreacted" but failing to address the police officer’s censorship demand and threat of criminal charges against the students. FIRE asked Gibson for clarification on October 5, but SHSU has not responded.

Merely disavowing Kirk’s vandalism is far from enough. As Adam stated in today’s press release, "The worst overreaction in this case came from the campus police, who not only demanded censorship of a ‘free speech wall’ but also have put students on notice that they could be criminally charged simply for offending others."

SHSU has much work to do to make the campus truly protective of free speech. In addition to failing to remedy the illiberal actions of its police force, SHSU has been designated FIRE’s "Speech Code of the Month" for October 2011 due to an unconstitutional policy that bans "using abusive, indecent, profane or vulgar language." FIRE will keep Torch readers posted on our efforts on behalf of free speech at SHSU; meanwhile, we urge our supporters to take action by contacting President Gibson and telling SHSU to stand up for free speech today.